How to End the Tuition Freeze (or Not)

Jun 4, 2021 | Policy

IRG Policy Solution: Last week, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee voted to end the tuition freeze. The freeze could not last forever, but questions remain if now is the right time to end it while public universities and colleges will be flush with nearly a half billion in federal COVID-relief funds (similar to the situation with K-12 education).

But, if lawmakers are going to end the tuition freeze, they should also do the following to protect Wisconsin families and ensure accountability on the higher education system:

  • Postpone any tuition increase until at least the 2023-2024 academic year.
  • Cap tuition increases to inflation.
  • Ensure online education (including via UW Flex) is accessible to adult learners and priced competitively.
  • Require public universities to detail where they plan to spend federal COVID-relief dollars and why a tuition hike is essential to cover those costs.
  • Conduct regular oversight legislative hearings on where extra tuition dollars are spent.

3 Things To Know:

1. Higher education is notoriously bad at controlling costs. Above-inflation increases to tuition and fees, an arms race for more resort-like amenities to attract students, and an explosion of academic programs with questionable economic or societal value have been the norm for decades. This is a national phenomenon and Wisconsin has a history of big tuition increases.

2. Governor Scott Walker and Republicans instituted a tuition freeze in 2013. Since 2013, Wisconsin has capped tuition increases at zero for in-state students after many years of regular annual increases that were nearly always above inflation and occasionally reached double digits (see chart by our friends at the MacIver Institute).

Governor Tony Evers proposed 2021-2023 budget included continuing the tuition freeze.

3. Federal dollars are coming. Under the American Rescue Plan, Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges will receive $449 million.  This is on top of whatever state funding increase approved by the Governor and legislature.  Any tuition increase would be an additional funding stream.

What’s Next: The Joint Finance Committee’s recommendation to lift the tuition freeze will go to the legislature in the summer.  Some have hinted at accompanying legislation to protect Wisconsinites from out of control spikes in tuition.

More Information: Check out an op-ed here written by senior fellow, Michael Brickman.