Coming off the release of her ambitious $350 billion plan to make college affordable, Hillary Clinton took aim at Republican candidate Gov. Scott Walker, accusing him of gutting funding for Wisconsin's colleges.
Before a crowd of supporters at a community college in New Hampshire Tuesday, Clinton accused the Wisconsin governor of "delighting in slashing the investment in higher education in his state and making it more difficult for students to get scholarships or to pay off their debt."
As my colleague Anne Gearan noted, a day before entering the 2016 race in July, Walker signed a state budget that would cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system. And that was after the legislature had to talk him down from his initial proposal to cut $300 million, or 13 percent, from the higher education budget.
Still, Walker's record on higher education is a bit nuanced, which he was quick to point out on Twitter Tuesday.
Walker has indeed held the line on tuition, but not for out-of-state, international or graduate students at many of the 26 schools that make up the University of Wisconsin system. Students enrolled in the state's 16 technical colleges have actually witnessed tuition go up an average 4.6 percent during his time in office.
And while the governor put a cap on tuition for many Wisconsin residents, he supported hundreds of millions of dollars in spending cuts for public universities that shifted more of the cost onto families, leading many to take out loans to cover costs.
Wisconsin students are now on the hook for nearly half of their college expenses, compared to 40 percent when Walker took office, according to data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). Researchers at the College Board peg the average published tuition and fees for in-state students at four-year universities in Wisconsin at $8,781, and $19,702 for out-of-state students in the 2014-2015 academic year.
When Walker took office in 2011, Wisconsin provided about $4,799 per college student, far below the national average of $6,737, according to SHEEO. Walker's predecessor Democrat Jim Doyle made significant cuts to higher education and allowed tuition hikes during his eight-year tenure, which Walker likes to point out.
But whereas Doyle reduced university funding by $250 million once, Walker did the same thing twice, withholding more than $500 million from Wisconsin schools. The state went from covering 42 percent of college costs in 2011 to 34 percent three years later, according to SHEEO. To offset the loss of funding from the state, Wisconsin colleges have merged departments, cut back on classes and eliminated staff positions.
"The institutions that don't have endowments, don't have cash reserves they have no choice but to cut courses, consolidate degree programs, which then leads to increases in class size," said Noel Tomas Radomski, director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. "All of this could result in students taking longer and spending more money to graduate."
In the midst of the financial turmoil, Walker ratcheted up the pressure by stripping job protections for professors. The governor framed the issue as a way to give university leaders flexibility to get rid of faculty, moving tenure from state statue into the purview of the governing Board of Regents. Instead of needing a financial emergency to fire a tenured professor, the board would only need to consider it necessary because a program was cancelled or changed in other ways. With enrollment at some of the smaller schools in the Wisconsin system starting to wane, the threat of courses being cut and programs ultimately being discontinued is alarming faculty, explained Radomski.
Although Walker has increased the amount of money the state offers in grants, fewer college students have actually benefited from that aid. A report from the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau found that 41,000 college students were denied the need-based grants in the 2013-2014 academic year because of the lack of funding.
About 70 percent of Wisconsin students in 2013 were borrowing to pay for school and graduating with an average $28,128 in student loan debt, a few dollars below the national average but much higher than the prior generation, according to data from the Institute for College Access & Success.
As a parent of two college-aged sons, Walker certainly knows about the high cost of college. The governor has taken out between $100,001 and $250,000 in federal parent loans since 2012, according to a personal financial disclosure he recently filed. Walker's oldest son, Matt, attends Marquette University, a private school in Milwaukee. His younger son, Alex, attends the flagship University of Wisconsin Madison.
On the campaign trail, Walker has called for reforms to the way colleges are accredited and for schools to pay up when their students default on their loans. Still, Walker, like many of his Republican contenders, has yet to offer a higher education policy platform.
Clinton's swipe at Walker Tuesday came after she derided all of her Republican opponents for ignoring college affordability, a central part of her platform, during the recent party debate. The Democratic front-runner is on the road touting her new plan, dubbed the New College Compact, as a solution to lower the cost of college and stem the rising tide of student debt.
Key to her proposal is reversing a decades-long trend of states cutting their higher education budgets, a move that has led to staggering increases in tuition at many public universities. The average state is spending 20 percent less per college student than it did before the 2008 recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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