Election year politics: student pocketbooks at the mercy of candidates policies

Sophomore Stevie Boettcher admittedly hasn’t given too much thought to this fall’s state elections. She’s pretty busy with school and other commitments, and whenever she catches a TV advertisement she usually finds herself unsure of what to believe.

But when it comes to politicians and how they stand to affect higher education in the UW System, she has one simple request: keep it affordable.

“If they want students to go to college, they have to make it affordable,” she said. “They just have to understand that.”

As candidates of various ideological persuasions massage state concerns about the cost of higher education, student lobbyists and university officials say student turnout at this fall’s elections is critical to spurring any real change.

“Politicians aren’t looking at students as a main voting constituency,” said Taylour Johnson, communications director for United Council, a student lobbying group. “We need to remain consistent so that when we have issues we want heard . we make an impact.”

Andy Soll, vice chancellor of business affairs, agreed with that theory. He encourages students, however, to consider a wide range of issues past the increasing bite of tuition.

But politicians in the state Legislature do collectively wield considerable power over higher education, officials agree.

The financial situation
Public funding of education comes to students in two main ways: the direct subsidy that counterbalances tuition and financial aid packages.

Soll said state funding has failed to adequately counteract the rising costs of education.

System numbers indicate a decline in the amount of state funding of higher education, accompanied by a rise in the amount of money coming from student tuition and fees.

In the 2002-2003 year, the state Legislature appropriated roughly $970 million toward the System, according to System revenue records. By 2004-2005, that number had dropped 8 percent to approximately $897 million.

System revenue generated from student tuition and fees – which could include financial aid students receive – was about $578 million in 2002-2003, according to the records. That number had risen 25 percent to $722 million in 2004-2005.

Once student-derived revenue such as application fees, special class fees and backed tuition enters the equation, students are paying for approximately 52 percent of their education, versus about 48 percent from the state, Soll said.

Meanwhile, financial aid – which is government money students receive to put toward their educational costs – has risen steadily, according to System records.

The political situation
Politicians from both sides of the political aisle in various state races are offering their own plans to encourage affordability in higher education.

Gov. Jim Doyle, D-Wis., said Thursday tuition increases in recent years were largely due to the need to balance the budget and a refusal by the Republican-controlled legislature to make higher education a priority.

His veto pen, he said, became an important tool in stopping Republican attempts to further cut funding in a tight fiscal situation.

“I’ve been able to successfully fight for it,” he said.

Doyle said he intends to push for more significant funding of the System, which he said will remain difficult if he faces a similar Legislature.

Congressman Mark Green, R-Wis., Doyle’s challenger in the gubernatorial race, has criticized the System for its declining affordability.

Green is touting a plan to cap tuition at the rate of inflation – an idea similar to Rep. Rob Kreibich, R-Chippewa Falls, whose 93rd Assembly District encompasses student-populated areas.

“We need to force the hand of the legislature,” Kreibich told The Spectator in a previous interview, in which he also said full control over tuition should be in the hands of the state Legislature, as opposed to the governor-appointed state legislature.

Green, who like Kreibich criticized the Board of Regents for the tuition increases, hopes to tie any increases in tuition to comparable jumps in financial aid, according to a press release.

Doyle said a cap could damage the System considerably if it’s not accompanied with sufficient state aid. That’s the argument Kreibich’s democratic challenger, Jeff Smith, recently made on campus as well.

“I’d be all for a cap if it came with a guarantee of state support,” Smith said.

Smith also countered the argument to disband the BOR, saying doing so would leave students completely vulnerable to political conditions.

Smith echoed the sentiments of university officials, who have said the state Legislature left the BOR with little choice but to raise tuition.

Whatever political leanings students have, Johnson said, it’s important they demonstrate their worth on Election Day.
“This is our chance,” she said.