A national report ranked Wisconsin as having the fourth-largest decline in per-student higher education funding between 2013 and 2018.

The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association released the report looking at higher education finances since the Great Recession. Nationwide, education appropriations fell by more than 24 percent since 2008 because of enrollment increases and funding decreases.

SHEEO reported that, in response, a majority of states worked to reverse the trend. The U.S. saw an increase of more than 15 percent in state funds per student.

Wisconsin did not follow this same trend, however. 

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone told Wisconsin Public Radio the current budget introduced by former Gov. Scott Walker has helped the university move toward better financial footing.

“What we saw with Gov. Walker in the previous administration was actually one of the best budgets that UW-Milwaukee had received in 10 years,” Mone said to WPR. “And I say that with respect to both capital and operating budget.”

State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who serves on the Joint Finance Committee, has heard a different story from UW-Madison administrators and students regarding the decline in funding.

Taylor said even after the recession ended, Republican lawmakers continued to make cuts to the UW System — a total reaching more than $500 million.

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“My Republican colleagues want to invest in workforce development,” Taylor said. “One of the best ways to do that is to invest in the UW System and to invest in our students. But that did not happen in general over the last eight years.”

According to the UW System, the number of faculty at the system’s institutions has declined since 2014 while the number of staff has increased slightly since 2015.

SHEEO reported that, between 2013 and 2018, state appropriations per student fell from  $7,002 to $6,435.

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, said she is disappointed in where Wisconsin ranks but is confident in Gov. Tony Evers and his new administration’s commitment to affordable, accessible higher education.

“Unfortunately, for too long here in Wisconsin we have had policymakers who have turned their backs on the Wisconsin Idea,” Sargent said. “I know it’s going to be a fight.”

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Evers’ 2019-21 state budget — which has met resistance from Republicans — proposes a $150 million increase in funding for the UW System and a $2.5 billion capital budget for construction and renovations.

In response to Republican pressures to improve workforce development, Taylor said an investment in the UW System would address the “dire need” for skilled, educated workers in the state.

Sargent agreed investment in education at all levels should remain a priority. Unfortunately, her Republican counterparts do not have the same priorities, Sargent said.

“Budgets are moral documents and represent the priorities of the people who are putting them together,” Sargent said. “We’ve had a Legislature and an executive who were making decisions prioritizing the wishes and the best interests of special interest groups who are often powerful people as opposed to ordinary people in our state.”

Taylor also expressed frustration that her Republican colleagues, who, while openly criticizing the budget as it currently stands, have not made any recommendations to the Joint Finance Committee, an action she called “unprecedented.”