The University of Wisconsin‘s Undergraduate Initiative seeks to add a tuition surcharge on students from higher-income families to improve the quality and value of undergraduate education and put greater emphasis on need-based financial aid. Chancellor Biddy Martin has encouraged comments and dialogue with students and the community. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated to the initiative and an online forum where students are encouraged to share their thoughts and vote on the issues that matter most to them.

Topping the list by a margin of 3-to-1 is the issue of penalizing students whose parents make over $80,000 a year. Why should some students have to subsidize other students or cut financial ties with their parents and accept the cost of everything that implies?

Second on the list is the issue of engineering students subsidizing Letters and Sciences majors. Whether this is actually a subsidy or part of the benefit these students receive is debatable, but given tuition redistribution is an explicit goal of the Undergraduate Initiative, it is not unreasonable to suspect this motive.

Third on the list is the issue of differential tuition based on family income. Is it fair to pit one student against the other based on their needs, or should students be charged equally according to the educational benefits they receive?

Fourth and fifth on the list concern the differential increase between in-state and out-of state and differential charges to parents over $80,000, respectively. In both cases the issue is the relationship of what is being charged to the services received.

What do these concerns have in common? None of these objections are against higher tuition per se. Students are not against paying more provided they get something in return. The basic issue is one of fairness. Are those paying the ones who recieve the benefit? Is it right to take from some and give to others? In one form or another, this is what students are concerned about and want to discuss.

This is the conversation we should be having yet no one is talking about. No one is talking about it because it’s an issue of ideology — a basic moral principle — and almost everyone today agrees that ideology is both impractical and outside rational discussion. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since the university has made clear what you pay need not be connected to the education you receive, students are naturally questioning all spending. “Is this a case of charity, or am I actually paying for my education?”

The initiative’s principles set the terms and motives of the program in general. Thus the basic moral ideas espoused by the Undergraduate Initiative are relevant to every aspect of the program. For example, the explicit willingness to use ability to pay as a standard and need as a claim sends a clear message to students: The University is not concerned with maximizing value to them but serving need. When and where they will choose to respect a particular student’s interests and when they choose to sacrifice those interests is anyone’s guess. Thus criticism regarding individual proposals stems from the underlying moral message.

The top concern regarding the tuition increase is a moral issue. Students don’t want to pay for other students’ education. This is a basic issue of fairness and an issue that warrants discussion. It is not an abstract ideological issue devoid of practical import. Rather it underlies and shapes every aspect of the university’s mission, its reputation, its relationship with students and parents and its concrete policies.

As members of a university environment we should not blindly accept even the most basic ideas governing our lives and our institutions. In regard to moral ideals we should not be asking what Jesus would do or what society wants; we should be asking what is true.

What is the rational justification for such ideas? These issues are real and students need answers. This is the conversation we should be having.

Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student majoring in biological sciences.