“Students should be working 40 hours a week, but these days they are taking off work to hang out with their friends and then are abusing Badger Care and the food pantries. Students need to pay attention to what’s going on around them.” — Fred Mohs, former University of Wisconsin regent and member of the legislative Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibility
This is what I and several other students heard as we sat in the spectator gallery of a state Capitol hearing room. We were floored by the disconnect from reality that Mohs displayed. What’s worse is that it was not an isolated incident. It accurately reflects the task force’s primary mode of action: charting a course via anecdote.
As college students, we’ve been trained to back up our arguments so we waited to hear the statistics, data and research that members of the task force would use to argue for major changes in state law, not the least concerning of which is the flexibility to increase tuition, which threatens access to a college degree for all Wisconsinites.
Unfortunately, I cannot relay any statistics, data or research presented by the members. None was provided. However, at least 10 different anecdotes were given by task force members that day. Who do these anecdotes come from? Where did Mohs get his ideas of what students are like these days? They’re not from any study I’ve seen.
The studies I have seen show that more than three-quarters of students say they can’t afford to go to school without working. Another study documents how students paying their way through school would need to work 70 hours a week just to make ends meet.
At UW-Madison, Wisconsinites are paying tuition that has doubled since 2001. The average amount of debt that students graduate with has increased by 30% in the past decade. The average master’s student in 2010 graduated with nearly $40,000 in debt.
Administrators argue that increasing tuition is the only means to deal with severe state budget cuts that threaten the quality of education. They claim that increasing tuition will allow for increased financial aid, but even as financial aid has gone up, student debt has continued to skyrocket and middle-class families have been cut out of the university. Graduation rates and retention rates continue to be average. Increasing tuition, especially at a time when families can’t afford to pay more, will result in sticker shock that keeps away those who need a college degree the most.
The Task Force on UW Restructuring should be using its time to refocus the state and UW on the needs of Wisconsin students and families. It should be working to open the university doors to all Wisconsinites, instead of protecting the prestige of UW. It should be focused on rebuilding the relationship between our communities and the universities in them and reprioritizing public investment in UW.
We need structures in place to solicit involvement (not just feedback) from students, faculty, staff and community members from small business owners to farmers and middle school teachers. Administrators should only be granted the ability to increase tuition if they can demonstrate it won’t destroy our ability to build a competitive 21st-century workforce.
Access is the priority, which means we need to set measurable criteria to even consider allowing for tuition increases. Tuition should not be allowed to increase unless it can be linked to a decrease in average student debt and an increase in the amount of low- and middle-income students being admitted and graduated.
There is plenty of work to do. The task force needs to stop offering anecdotes and starting doing its homework.
Clearly, the task force members don’t understand what our needs are in Wisconsin. Give the task force members your recommendation by writing to your state legislators about what they need to be doing to ensure that UW is serving its students and the state.
Allie Gardner, originally from Sun Prairie, is a junior at UW-Madison and is chair of the Associated Students of Madison. This article, which originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, was reprinted here with her permission.