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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The UW tuition freeze is false populism
It will help the rich rather than blue-collar families

Why is it that the only thing state Republicans and Democrats can agree on is a bad idea?

When the University of Wisconsin System was discovered to have a healthy, but not excessive, reserve account, legislators of both parties tripped over themselves calling for a tuition freeze that will last at least two years. When it comes to mindless pandering, we are all one party.

Republicans were cynically playing a populist card, and the Democrats were mistaken in thinking they were playing a different populist angle.

The Republicans were cynical because they couldn't care less about poor or middle-class families' or students' debt burdens. This was just another way of beating up on the University of Wisconsin and "Madison" and all it represents to them in general.

But the bigger surprise was Democrats who should know better. With the exception of Rep. Cory Mason and Rep. Jon Richards, who voted against the tuition freeze last week, they apparently think a freeze will benefit the blue-collar families they genuinely care about. No it won't. It helps the rich.

The full cost of a year's worth of education for a full-time undergraduate at the UW-Madison is about $24,000. Tuition for Wisconsin kids is about $9,300 a year for a full course load. It's $12,600 for a Minnesota resident through the reciprocity program, and other nonresidents pay the full cost.

But here's the problem. All Wisconsin residents pay the same tuition regardless of their family income. So, for all intents and purposes, middle-class families who struggle to make ends meet are subsidizing more well-off families for whom the same price is a bargain. There are financial aid programs, but they aren't designed to fully make up for the discrepancy in buying power between families of different means.

To illustrate the point, I ran some numbers using a financial aid calculator linked to the UW's website. The calculator estimates what a given family might be expected to contribute based on their income, savings and family size. I ran the numbers for two families with two kids and married parents. One family had annual income of $250,000 and $100,000 in savings, while the other made $75,000 and had $25,000 in the bank.

The calculator estimated that the wealthier family could be expected to handle $71,000 a year in tuition, room and board and other expenses, while the lower-income family could be expected to pay $5,300. The total cost for all expenses for a year at the UW is estimated to be around $24,300 for a Wisconsin resident living in the dorms ($9,300 for tuition plus another $15,000 for room and board, books, beer, etc.). The high-income family could actually afford three times as much as they spend at Wisconsin. For them it's a bargain, and their kid is likely to get her degree without incurring a debt. But the lower-income family could afford only 22% of that cost. For them it's a stretch, and it probably means a big debt for the eventual graduate.

Yet both families pay exactly the same tuition, and both families would benefit from a tuition freeze. How is this fair?

A better system would be to charge full tuition price for everyone and then scale back the cost based on family income. Or, if you're a kid like I was, and you can prove you're paying your own way through school, you could get a rate based on your own meager income.

We should take this a step further and get rid of in-state and out-of-state tuition differentials as well. The system should be based solely on family or individual student income and not place of residence. One of the great things about college is that you should get exposed to all kinds of ideas and perspectives and lifestyles. I'm sorry, but kids from Brookfield mixing it up with kids from Anoka just isn't all that much of a cross-cultural exchange. Sure, some are Packers fans and some cheer for the Vikings, but can we at least get out of the North Division here?

Far from wanting to make it harder for students from around the country and around the world to come here, we should encourage that because it's good for our own kids. As history professor Bill Cronon once told me in a story for Isthmus, most of the education that takes place on campus doesn't happen in the classroom. It is triggered by the casual mixing of ideas that can only happen on a diverse campus. When our college campuses are more homogeneous, they're less powerful academic institutions.

So low tuition and parochialism ensure a weaker education for richer kids. It benefits nobody all that much.

The answer to the non-problem of a reasonable reserve is not the pandering, false populism of a tuition freeze. The answer is to make the UW an even better, stronger institution by making it more accessible and more diverse.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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