UW System Extends Tuition Freeze for Nonresident, Graduate Students

Months after suggesting a two percent tuition increase, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved a two-year tuition freeze for all nonresident and graduate university students yesterday, marking a major turnaround from the Boardʼs actions in recent years.

This change goes beyond the reforms enforced by the Wisconsin State Legislature. Earlier this spring, the Board was mandated by the 2013-15 State Budget to freeze tuition for undergraduate residents for the next two years. The state action followed the Legislatureʼs discovery of $643 million in funds during an audit last April. Now, all students will receive the benefit of a static tuition rate within the UW system.

Officials such as UW-Madison Interim Chancellor David Ward initially opposed the freeze, calling it “a mistake,” and sounding alarms that the freeze would leave UW with a budget shortfall of more than $61 million by 2016. Now, however, these regents at the university have pulled an about-face by not only approving of the freeze for undergraduate residents, but also extending it.

One clear motive for the decision is the desire to increase enrollment; the materials presented by the University to the Board of Regents clearly outline this goal. The academic tuition and refund policy and schedule presented to the Board clearly writes that “increases are not recommended for most other student groups (e.g. nonresident undergraduates and resident and nonresident graduate students). This recommendation reflects a desire to be price competitive and grow revenues from nonresident and international student enrollments.”

The freeze won’t apply to other aspects of student life at the universities. Costs of room and board are still set to increase by an average of 3% or $193, and student segregated fees at the four-year institutions will also increase by an average of 0.5%, or $36. But for the next two years, the more than 181,000 students in the UW system won’t have to worry about hefty tuition hikes, which have been set at 5.5% for six consecutive years.

Despite the ruling, some UW officials continued to voice concerns about long-term effects of the freeze.

“What’s really significant about this budget and this biennium is that $62 million ongoing annual base reduction,” said David Miller, the Senior Vice President for Administration and Fiscal Affairs, who led the presentation. “We can manage the one-time. It’s how do you manage that permanently.”

Other officials argued that the temporary freeze was in the best interest of Wisconsin families and students, but highlighted a need to continue the conversation. Ward called for the restructuring of how tuition is set, fairly splitting the percentage of cost between families and the state of Wisconsin. According to Ward, families lack the ability to plan savings given the unexplained tuition increases in past years.

In order to pay for the freeze, the UW system will draw from its now-controversial funds. According to Miller, a balance of $785.6 million is expected at the end of Fiscal Year 2013. By the end of Fiscal Year 2014, that balance is expected to drop to $462 million.