New report finds Wisconsin’s support for public higher education has plummeted

Katie Pulvermacher, Staff Writer

A December report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum says Wisconsin’s support for public higher education has drastically plummeted when compared to the rest of the nation, and changes are being called for.

The UW and technical college systems face immense financial challenges arising from a depletion of state funding, an in-state tuition freeze, declining statewide enrollments in universities and more.

These shifts in education are causing predicaments for policymakers and the public.

As taxpayers may see a state funding decline as good for them and students may see an in-state tuition freeze good for them, these are both negatively impacting the quality of higher education in Wisconsin.

Since less tax dollars are going towards higher education, there is a declining enrollment at the UW system schools. There has been a 13% enrollment drop since 2011, according to the report.

In the case of the in-state tuition freeze, a suggestion in the forum stated policymakers could allow prices to rise for those able to pay them, yet still provide additional financial aid for those who cannot pay. This is favored by experts, especially economists, as it provides additional funding while still protecting students with financial difficulties.

Polls conducted by Marquette University Law School in 2017 show that 48% of registered voters in Wisconsin preferred a 5% cut in tuition for all in-state UW students to spending an equivalent amount to “help qualifying low- and moderate-income students.”

Helping low-income students, UW-Madison’s Bucky’s Tuition promise guarantees scholarships and grants to cover four years of tuition and fees for students with households making gross incomes of $60,000 or less.

UW System President Tommy Thompson discussed with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel his intentions prior to the start of this past fall semester in 2020.

“We know how many families are hurting economically and how many families are without a job [due to COVID-19],” Thompson said. “We know that students want to come back to the university and we just thought it was not the time to raise tuition or to even bring [the tuition freeze] up.”

Thompson is seeking to extend the “Wisconsin Tuition Promise” to all resident UW undergraduates with a 3.5% UW System budget increase. In the future, he sees the program expanding to even more students at UW-Madison.

Despite these challenges faced with the tuition freeze and state funding, Wisconsin college students are additionally reaping a few benefits.

Graduation rates at public four-year institutions have improved for all students, including underrepresented minorities. Students are also graduating more quickly, spending less and have less debt in doing so.

COVID-19 has started up online instruction at universities and offers higher chances of serving new students and boosting enrollments.

The forum suggests “the state’s higher education institutions should expand these offerings, focusing on the programs with the greatest benefit to workers, employers and Wisconsin as a whole.”

UW-Milwaukee Think Tank 2030, a discussion group in charge of finalizing reports for the public, recommends the focus of online learning should be reaching students through their preferred ways.

“This should include the ability of students to complete a UWM degree either fully in person or fully online, for at least a designated group of selected degrees, or facilitating degrees using hybrid models creatively,” Think Tank said. “This umbrella recommendation is intended to maximize student-centeredness by [meeting] the student’s learning, geographic and economic needs.”

In order for Wisconsin to reclaim what it has lost in recent years, alternatives include “increasing state tax or student tuition funding for higher education; securing other sources of revenue; enhancing borrowing options; shoring up sagging enrollments; and finding efficiencies through digital learning, new flexibility for campus leaders, or streamlined programs, campuses, or governance,” according to the report.

For more information on this study and more Wisconsin Policy Forum research, visit