Keeping State Universities Affordable

Kevin P. Reilly is the president of the University of Wisconsin System.

If I had my way, students wouldn't pay any tuition to attend a public university.

That's what I told a small, but vocal, group of University of Wisconsin students who attended a speech I gave earlier this month as they pressed me for remedies to the escalating cost of college tuition. And I meant what I said.

But that's not a real-world solution to the situation state universities like ours are facing. Rising tuition is a challenge for college students everywhere, and with ongoing state and federal budget deficits, colleges and universities must be creative if they are to maintain their commitments to access and affordability.

Wisconsin has a long tradition of those commitments. As president of the University of Wisconsin System, I know that talent, creativity, drive, and enterprise are not the exclusive purview of wealthy families. I have consistently argued that it is vital to keep higher education accessible to all students from all economic backgrounds.

As in other states, tuition at Wisconsin's 26 public universities is directly tied to state support. As state support declines, tuition rises.

At the time the University of Wisconsin System was created in the early 1970s, state funding accounted for about half of our overall budget — today, it accounts for about 25 percent. And, since the '70s, tuition has increased from 13 percent to 21 percent of the total UW budget. The average cost to attend a UW System institution — tuition, fees, room and board — is now $8,758 per year, equal to 17 percent of a typical Wisconsin household income. Five years ago, that measure was less than 15 percent.

Even with these increases, financial aid helps to keep the University of Wisconsin System affordable for the vast majority of state students. Tuition at our flagship institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, remains the second lowest in the Big Ten. While we are affordable compared to our peers, these prices can still cause sticker shock for many students and families, especially those with lower incomes.

We know that the number of students from families in the lower two-fifths of wealth in this state has been decreasing. At the same time, the number from the top two-fifths has been going up. That's why we are concentrating our efforts on providing sufficient financial aid to our neediest students. We are pressing the case with our governor and legislature to provide state support that can help us keep tuition increases modest, and we are working to create a financial aid program that would essentially freeze tuition for students from lower-income families. This will help us keep a University of Wisconsin degree within reach for all.

Cost is a major factor in a student's ability not only to attend and graduate from college, but also to realize his or her goals upon graduation. We don't want our students to take jobs they don't like simply to earn the money to pay off student loans. Thirty-seven percent of UW System students do not take out student loans, but those who do graduate with an average of $17,000 in debt.

Fortunately, those who borrow do indeed get their money's worth. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, recent census data show that college graduates earned nearly double the pay of people with only a high-school diploma. In fact, one commonly used metric is that a college graduate will, on average, earn about $1 million more in his or her lifetime than a high-school graduate.

But a university education is a good investment for more than just the individuals who obtain it. We know that the higher the proportion of baccalaureate degree holders in a state's population, the higher the state's per capita income. The higher the per capita income in a state, the more public revenue available through the tax base to improve quality of life for all the state's residents.

So we all have a stake in seeing as many of our fellow citizens earn a college degree as possible. That means state and federal support for financial aid programs, as well as funding for universities' operating budgets that helps keep higher education affordable, are sound investments that will pay dividends broadly across the society.

In the knowledge economy, states will thrive or decline based in no small part on their success in encouraging ever-greater numbers of their residents to go to college. Lowering the tuition barrier for college-goers will raise prospects for prosperity for them, and everyone else.

Kevin P. Reilly is the president of the University of Wisconsin System.

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