Does the UW System know what they are doing?
November 1, 2023
In the wake of a UW-River Falls annual tuition increase and the arrival of Deloitte, a private audit services company, at UWRF, financial concerns are rampant.
The UWRF annual tuition increase of over $1,000 went into effect in fall of 2023. This increase can be divided into an $822 annual increase that affects all UW System universities and a $283 annual increase that affects specifically UWRF.
We at the Student Voice believe that the UWRF-specific increase is reasonable, as it is an investment in UWRF programs like the Falcon Promise and the First-Year Experience. Whether or not we at the Voice see the value in these programs, at least the money will have a direct impact on the UWRF campus, and on the experiences of its students.
The UW System increase, on the other hand, has less direct results. The most direct use of the money, in fact, is the recent announcement that the UW System will be rebranded to the Universities of Wisconsin. The rebrand cost the UW System $480,000.
We at the Student Voice believe that, whether or not the UW System tuition increase is reasonable, the money is, at current, not being used in a way that benefits the universities.
Jay Rothman, president of the UW System, said, “The idea is to shift the focus from a system to the universities that provide opportunities for students and families across Wisconsin. We think a new name, our new identity, reflects the collective role our 13 public universities play in the economic and social fabric of Wisconsin.”
The Voice believes that this statement exemplifies a lack of transparency on the part of the UW System. Rothman claims to prioritize the universities, but has authorized Deloitte to conduct audits which will likely be used to facilitate budget cuts.
This follows budget cuts like the ones at UW-Oshkosh, where 140 employees were laid off and 35 positions were left unfilled. In addition, Rothman announced on Oct. 17, that UW-Milwaukee’s Washington County campus and UW-Oshkosh’s Fond du Lac campus would be closing by June 2024, with all of their classes moving online.
When we interviewed Jay Rothman at the Board of Regents meeting on Oct. 6, he said, “we are the most affordable public university system in the Midwest… and we're working hard to make sure that we remain affordable.” Rothman’s authorization of systemwide tuition increases seems to weaken this promise of affordability.
In addition, the Board of Regents meeting listed skepticism of the value of higher education as one of the threats that the UW System is facing. Tuition increases, however, will only increase skepticism, even if the UW universities remain affordable.We believe that PR decisions like the rebrand, which are questionable at best, could also increase skepticism.
Rothman is correct that the UW universities, and especially River Falls, are affordable relative to other public universities. The Voice believes that UW-River Falls continues to offer a worthwhile cost-to-benefit ratio, but, if recent trends continue, that could change.
Affordability is one of, if not the most important factor in many students’ decisions to attend UWRF, and mounting tuition increases could undermine that. Many of the Voice’s staff members, especially those in their freshman year, expressed concern at such a possibility.
UWRF’s reciprocity bill offers a potential answer to these concerns.
Minnesota residents pay more in tuition than Wisconsin residents, and that additional revenue, which amounts to $4.3 million, is sent to the state of Wisconsin. The reciprocity bill would allow UWRF to retain that lost revenue, and use it as it sees fit.
The Student Voice supports the reciprocity bill for several reasons. Despite the fact that the state of Wisconsin has a projected surplus of over 7.1 billion dollars, the Wisconsin State Assembly cut UW System funding by $32 million in September 2023. In our opinion, taking an additional $4.3 million, from UW-River Falls specifically, is unreasonable.
If UWRF were able to retain the reciprocity money, it would have the opportunity to reject Deloitte’s audit suggestions, eliminate its structural deficit, increase professor and staff member salaries, and perhaps even reduce the recent tuition increase.
After decisions such as UWRF’s $232,000 rebrand and the $100,000 College Tour episode, we at the Voice are under no assurance that UWRF will use the money effectively, but at least the university would have the financial flexibility to do so.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the bill will be passed. With these and other challenges looming on the horizon, change is needed in the UW System, and, in our opinion, a UW System rebrand is not going to suffice. All the while, it’s becoming more and more difficult to remain hopeful for the future of Wisconsin higher education.