Yinan Chen [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

June 18, 2019; Wisconsin State Journal

Wisconsin’s flagship state school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a source of pride for many people in the state. However, during the disastrous tenure of former governor Scott Walker, the university system, like many public institutions, faced huge budget cuts from which it has not yet recovered. One devoted group of residents and alumni is determined to help restore the university system and its flagship to their former glory, and so formed a nonprofit for the purpose.

Badgers United says their goal is to educate Wisconsinites about the economic benefits that UW-Madison brings to the state, in order to mobilize support for greater funding. Specifically, the group aims to end the six-year in-state tuition freeze and boost state funding. Its sister organization, Badger Advocates, will do the lobbying, and Badgers United will focus on the general public.

Undergraduate, in-state tuition at UW-Madison is $10,555/year, while for non-residents, whose tuition has not been frozen, it is $37,615. Fees like room and board, books, and others can add $15,000–$20,000 to the cost of attendance. Considering the student debt crisis, frozen tuition seems to us like a good idea, but tuition for non-residents has risen in response.

Walker gained national attention for his strenuous work to weaken unions, specifically teachers’ unions, in the Badger State, but he and the Republican legislature also did some damage to higher education: in 2015, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee cut the UW system budget by $250 million and ended tenure protection for faculty members. Many people were furious about this, including the representatives’ Democratic colleagues. “You can’t do this and say you care about this system,” said Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison. “No one believes you.”

Since 2010, per-student funding by the university has fallen by over $1,000; faculty pay has dropped to 16 percent below peer institutions; and in 2017, UW Madison lost its prized spot in US News and World Report’s Top 10 rankings.

This year, the new Democratic governor Tony Evers attempted to boost the school system’s funding and decouple it from the performance metrics to which it was previously tied. His office’s budget focused on three major concerns: the unmet demand for trained workers like nurses and engineers in the state, the burden of student debt, and the “crisis surrounding faculty pay.”

Unfortunately, the state legislature, which is still Republican-dominated, extended the tuition freeze as the governor recommended but approved less than half of the money requested.

“I feel like I’ve been kicked in the shins,” UW System President Ray Cross said after the vote. “The Legislature missed an opportunity to meet the future needs of this state. I just can’t get over that.”

Both the university and Badgers United see resident outreach as a crucial way to regain support. UW-Madison has focused on projecting a relatable, rather than elitist, image. The “UW Scoop” van travels the state offering free ice cream and facts about student debt, football games, and campus statues.

Badgers United, on the other hand, offers shareable graphics explaining that UW-Madison generates $15 billion in economic impact throughout the state each year. This makes sense, as its executive director, Amber Schroeder, is very pro-business and a former membership director for the conservative Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

The UW system isn’t the only one facing hardship; as NPQ has noted, small colleges in New England have been closing at an alarming rate because they can’t keep up with rising costs and pressure to lower tuition. For those schools, consultant Nancy Tessier pointed out that marketing won’t fix a strategic problem; only serious programmatic redesign can do that. Is Badgers United tackling the wrong part of the problem here? At the very least, the combining of constituencies in common cause is a potentially winning strategy.—Erin Rubin