For nearly a year, Badgers United has raised awareness of the importance UW-Madison has to the state of Wisconsin and the risk the institution is in due to misguided policies. We have been at the forefront of the conversation on the University’s future – highlighted the data of the damage the steep decline in state support over the last four decades and the nation’s longest undergraduate in-state tuition freeze are causing. We have continued to sound the alarm that the University was just one crisis away from a catastrophe.
When we formed this organization in 2018, we would never have guessed that the crisis we would face would be a pandemic of global proportions. Yet, here we are facing the most extensive public health challenge in modern history.
Even in the best of times, a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 would fundamentally change the landscape of higher education. However, we are not in the best of times.
Since 1974, state support for the UW-Madison has fallen from 43% of the school’s budget to just 14% – a nearly $4,000 decrease per student adjusted for inflation. Compounding this massive reduction, since 2013, the Legislature has kept the in-state undergraduate tuition freeze in place. The public often forgets the genesis of the freeze, but it was a punitive measure by the Legislature to force UW System to spend down the tuition reserves, which were deemed too high by policymakers.
In hindsight, this approach was misguided. In 2013, 86% of the tuition reserves were allocated to ongoing projects, and the remainder, just 14%, were being held as a rainy day fund for when a crisis struck.
Over the last 7 years, the University has spent down those reserves, with just around half of the original balance remaining. The short-sightedness of this approach has never been more apparent than this exact moment when UW-Madison is projecting a best-case scenario of $100 million in lost revenue due to COVID-19. With the safety net shredded by the tuition freeze, higher education stands on a precipice of financial ruin.
However, as bleak as that sounds, in this challenging time, there lies immense opportunity. To meet the needs of the state and students, UW-Madison is making adjustments that have the potential to change the course of higher education in Wisconsin forever.
Distance learning is now in use for the entire student body – a task that was accomplished in just a week. While that rushed timeline is not ideal, and it is not perfect for every class, it is an inspiring instance where the University met the needs of citizens and students in an exceptional way. Additionally, it lays the groundwork for a post-COVID-19 reevaluation of how higher education can best serve the state as distance learning can be a powerful tool to address obstacles such as accessibility and affordability.
This crisis has driven home the immense value of the research conducted at our flagship university. From providing our citizens with incredible medical care and trained professionals to being integral in the development of better testing – UW-Madison is at the center of our state and nation’s response to COVID-19.
Finally, our current situation has made abundantly clear that it is time for the outdated tuition freeze to end so that the University can build up appropriate reserves for whatever the next crisis will be. It is not sustainable for any organization, especially one that is so indispensable to our state’s economic and scientific success, to be unable to keep an appropriate emergency fund. 
We have many hard weeks ahead as we endure the most significant public health crisis of our lifetimes. However, there will be a day – hopefully soon – where Shelter-In-Place and quarantines will be lifted. When that day comes, there will need to be a robust conversation about what the future of higher education looks like in Wisconsin and what learnings we can apply to future policy. Badgers United is here and will be part of that conversation, to provide a data-driven perspective to our policymakers.
For 172 years, UW-Madison has anchored our state through every major crisis from the Civil War to the Spanish Flu Pandemic to World War II. In 2020, it will do so again during the COVID-19 crisis – providing essential research, health care and even dormitories to the citizens of Wisconsin. It can do all these things because of the investments generations of Wisconsinites have made over the years in our flagship university and the Wisconsin Idea that is central to the institution’s mission.
Badgers United is here for the long haul and has kept an unwavering focus on minding the future of the University. The approach of advocating for the University in ways that it cannot has only become more critical as the institution is at the center of the nation’s COVID-19 response.
So, while UW-Madison helps address a global pandemic, we will be here asking the questions and providing the data on what happens once we emerge from this crisis. What we already know is that it is time for us as a state to step up and invest in the future of this Wisconsin cornerstone.
Amber Schroeder
Executive Director, Badgers United