Biddy Martin’s tuition increase

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It is in some ways admirable that the tuition increase championed by Chancellor Biddy Martin has become the establishment position among the students who choose to opine on the issue, including the campus press, and members of student government. It takes a certain amount of courage to say to your fellow student that you support a tuition hike, in the same way that it takes a practically unseen level of confidence for a politician to support a tax hike (see Russ Feingold’s first Senate campaign). Unfortunately, however, the discussion of Martin’s plan has been surprisingly unnuanced, with supporters touting the simple fact that the university is starved for cash, and opponents saying that tuition is already too high.

What has not been discussed is the structure of the tuition hike. Currently, the plan imposes a $250 increase for in-state students next year, with an additional $250 increase every year afterwards. For out-of-staters, the increase will be $750, and similarly, the price will rise by that amount every year. Students from families with incomes of less than $80,000 a year will essentially get this hike refunded through grants.

It’s good that the university attempted to draw a line based on income, but it’s not good enough. For a public university, such a regressive system of tuition is a scandal. The wealthiest families are still paying the same tuition as middle to upper-middle class families. Those in the top 10 percent of the income bracket at Wisconsin could likely sustain a much heavier tuition increase and it wouldn’t deter the students from leaving or finding another place to go to college. Especially for out of state students. Those who come to Madison from far away are already willing to pay an outrageous cost rather than go to their home state university. An additional $1000-$2000 might hurt, but it won’t deter them from attending the university in the same way it would for many in-state students. But the point is not to beat up on out of staters, but rather to draw more lines in the tuition code so that the rich can carry an appropriate share of the burden.

Here’s the problem. If a university is a government service then it should operate (to a certain extent) like one and be open to all taxpayers. Unfortunately, the current system, in which we pay tuition rather than paying taxes, eliminates the progressive element of our tax code and over-burdens the poor and working class with tuition rates made for the upper-middle class.

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3 Responses to “Biddy Martin’s tuition increase”

  1. Jason Smathers Says:

    But how high does it go then? If you move the income line to include 80 percent of campus, how much does tuition rise for the 8,000 or so who are now paying for financial aid for 32,000?

    I do think that the income line could have been tinkered with in normal economic circumstance in order to allow more of the middle class to reap the benefits and create a more progressive structure of “taxation” (if we’re to negate actual taxation in the process), but I do think that if we’re to use the extreme structure you’re painting, the gambit would fail.

    This would not only be because a tight economy means tight spending for everyone, but because the prestige/cost gap still exists for a few years after you make that raise. And if you really slap the Ivy League pricetag on a public university education, those paying from out of state/with the highest incomes are going to expect Ivy League education. Otherwise I do think you might see a shift in your high-income out of staters going elsewhere. I don’t buy the argument that high-aid, high-tuition models do this, but I will if the price range quickly expands in the snap of a finger.

    Maybe you could pull it off with a gradual increase and some REALLY fancy PR skills, but you’d also have to have made most of your programs top rank in that time as well. It’s a hard pill to swallow when most people don’t know which business or industry will collapse next.

    But I think in normal conditions, you might be right.

  2. Jason Smathers Says:

    clarification: If the tuition goes big enough, quick enough. I was redundant with “quickly expands in the snap of a finger.”

  3. The Sconz Says:

    Jason, always a pleasure.

    My point is that maybe the tuition increase is appropriate, however, there should be more than two classifications of income. It is outside the realm of logic that students are only divided into “below 80k and above 80k.” While there is a certain amount of need-based financial aid and scholarship money, there definitely is not enough, and therefore, the tuition structure should reflect something more progressive, like the tax code (not nearly progressive enough, I might add). Hence, tuition should be different for families making $120 k a year and those making $1 million a year.

    Just look at European universities, for instance. There the tuition is often little to non-existent. Now, obviously education isn’t free there; everybody just pays for it through taxes. But the difference is that through a progressive tax system the poor are not demanded to pay what they cannot afford. If we choose to have a system in which only people who want higher education pay for it, which makes a certain amount of sense, great, but we need to make a system that grants equal opportunity to any person who wants to go to college.

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