It’s Good to Be an Education Optimist

April 19, 2013 | Blog

Once in awhile people ask me how I can continue to call myself an education optimist when the “new normal” is so grim.  They ask, “why do you continue tilting at windmills instead of being pragmatic and accepting the situation?”

The answer is simple: acceptance is unnecessary and defeat is not an option.  I challenge the status quo for the sake of students.

Today, I want to say Take that, windmill!

The University of Wisconsin System just ceded to the demands of students across the State and agreed to cap a tuition increase at no more than 2% for the coming year and eliminate the waiting list for the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant.  This is a stunning reversal, as President Kevin Reilly had been lobbying against students, insisting that no cap was necessary.

What happened?  Well, as I have long insisted, the issue is not entirely about a lack of state funding being provided to higher education but how administrators are spending it.  When the incentives for administrators cause they to advance the interests of institutions over the needs of students, accountability measures are required to prevent that.  UW System just got called out, as an audit just revealed that a $404 million balance from tuition payments in 2011-2012 was leftover, unspent, while tuition was hiked by 5.5%.  SERIOUSLY??? Those cash reserves were being held for “specific planned future activities,” according to the System.  Sorry Charlie, no way. That is something you do with appropriations, not tuition.  If you aim to help future students and promote stability, that’s a public good, and should be on the public dime. This is an outgrowth of the same mindset that’s diminished tuition and pushed students into debt– the same old public / private benefits nonsense. Honestly, the students should demand NO increase and hold firm on doing it for 2 or more years!

So, here we are– they said it couldn’t be done– the net price of attending UW System schools will likely stay flat or decline over the next year.  HURRAH!

Second, Minnesota legislators took a major step yesterday towards a tuition cap of their own, as the Senate voted to increase spending on higher education by $263 million in exchange for institutional performance accountability and a freeze on tuition increases at the state’s universities.  This is remarkable– using appropriations to drive down the costs of a college education on behalf of the people of one’s state. Gee, whoever thought of that!

So folks, the strategy works. Get out there and insist on budgetary transparency and accountability for our institutions of higher education and simultaneously demand that legislators do whatever they can to drive down tuition.  This is the most effective strategy to reducing student debt in the near term.  We can do it!


  1. Reply


    April 23, 2013

    Sara, I'm saddened to see you siding with the Republican UW-bashers. You favor low tuition to help low-income families, but I'm pretty sure that the majority of state legislators favor it mainly because they hate the Universities as what they see as hotbeds of leftism. Or to curry favor with their constituents, many of whom could well afford to help their kids more with college costs if the families would just cut back a bit on new cars, TV, and other consumer goods.

    If the Wisconsin legislature would follow Minnesota’s example and increase state spending on higher education, then perhaps a tuition freeze might be justified. Until that happens, however, please don’t encourage them in disparaging the UW System.

    I do agree that financial aid funding should be increased, but I fail to see why UW-Madison should have a lower in-state tuition than other comparable state universities. It’s still an amazing bargain, and less than the annual cost of living for most undergraduates.

    Barb Lewis

  2. Reply


    May 3, 2013

    Wisconsin does not allow for most state appropriations to be carried over as reserves for future use. Spend it or lose it. So your idea on reserves has no basis in reality. They can only come from non state fund sources.

  3. Reply

    Sara Goldrick-Rab

    May 4, 2013

    Dear Barb,

    Thanks for writing. It is too bad that you think there are only two sides to a story like this one. It is perfectly possible to find the behavior of UW System unacceptable while also finding the behavior of the Legislature unacceptable. Interesting, many of the people who regularly disparaged UW System under the Biddy Martin regime now find themselves defending it. In neither case were their cases built on evidence. I stand by my support for the existence of a System and UW-Madison within it, and also by my critique of current leadership. They have utterly failed students, families, faculty and staff in the manner in which they undertook both saving for a rainy day and communicating about it. If you think that refraining from that critique is HELPING UW-Madison, you're not talking with legislators, including those on the Left. Our administration is equally inept, and faculty and staff standing as one with them leaves the incorrect appearance that our interests are aligned. They are not. The administration has worked against us, not for us, for years, and only those who've spent too much time inside to understand otherwise forget that.

    No one said Madison should have lower in-state tuition than our peers-- our peers should lower their prices too. Breaking from the pack in this case is true leadership. Affordability is not measured by markets, it is measured by ability to pay. If you will simply compare the NET cost of attendance at UW-Madison (between $12-20K for most of our students) to household income, you will realize that devoting between 25-30% or up to 70% of annual income to covering college for your child is not reasonable. Loans are becoming required, and that is unacceptable-- no one should be forced to carry debt in order to further their education, it does us all great harm. And given both the low minimum wage and the pathetic labor market, plus those high costs, it is no longer possible to only work to cover those costs. There's no "amazing bargain" about it.


  4. Reply

    Sara Goldrick-Rab

    May 4, 2013

    Dear Anonymous,

    First, thanks for writing and I hope that in the future you will have the courage to sign your name.

    Second, to claim that because of a current regulation something important is impossible is to deny the reality that laws are written by people and can be changed. It is yet another failure of UW System to make it clear to the public that budget stabilization funds were needed, were not available, and this put our entire system at risk. Overall, System communications with regard to the public have been effective in only one regard, in keeping the System whole, and in that regard frankly the thanks goes to our outstanding lobbyists and not the communications folks.

    The case could be made as follows: The problem of state finances must be approached with the utmost caution and deliberation. The existent dangers are several. When a surplus exists, everybody can find a use for it. A far more conservative approach is to establish safeguards against raids which are not the product of thoughtful planning. UW System should be required to deposit excess revenues in good years for use in bad years, including specifying the size of the account, and parameters for when funds should be placed in it.

    An approach like this one would help prevent tax hikes, reduce the impact of volatility on the budgets of universities thus stabilizing tuition changes for families, and reduce the potential for mismanagement.

    Such approaches have enjoyed bipartisan support elsewhere. Your claims sound as though they originate with System, which is perhaps why they sound so common and unoriginal. We need innovation, transparency, and smart leadership. Mistakes like these hurt us all, and feed the Legislature's desire to harm us-- and thus are entirely unforgivable.

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