WAUKESHA, Wis. – In addition to a proposed 5 percent cut in tuition at state universities, Gov. Scott Walker wants to help students spend less for college by making some student fees optional.
The governor’s 2017-19 budget proposal would make optional the “allocable segregated fees” portion of the tuition bill at University of Wisconsin System schools. These are the student fees that fund such things as student government, student organizations and even a free bus pass program for UW-Madison students.
“At a time when we want to make college more affordable, we should not be forcing all students to pay for things such as ‘Sex Out Loud,’” said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson in a statement. “The governor’s proposal reduces tuition for students by 5 percent and ensures they have the final say on what their money funds in terms of allocable programs. It is all aimed at affordability and accountability.”
The “Sex Out Loud” program referenced by Evenson is to “promote healthy sexuality through sex-positive education and activism.” The student group received $103,000 in student fees this year and offered classes such as “Kink 420” regarding fetish sex.
In 2016-17, total segregated fees collected by the UW system were $120 million, 6.26 percent of the total tuition and fees collected. Of that, about 17 percent is “allocable” segregated fees controlled by the student governments at UW system schools, according to the Walker administration.
“Allocable fees do not go towards long-term commitments or ongoing operational costs of university owned and controlled buildings,” Walker said in the budget announcement in February. “They provide support for campus student activities and services that are allocated by campus student government and university chancellors. Allowing an opt-out helps students make the decisions on what they do and do not want to fund.”
As part of a merger of state universities in 1971, students and faculty became part of a shared governance program for the UW System. In the 2015-16 budget, Walker modified shared governance to give state university administrations more authority in dealing with university budgets. But the allocable segregated fees are still under student government control for now, with a final say from university administration.
The segregated fee opt-out would be a yes or no across the board. Students would not be able to pick and choose which programs they would fund. In addition, the proposed opt-out would only apply to allocable fees.The governor’s proposal would not affect non-allocable fees, student fees that are controlled primarily by the administration for the costs of student unions, health centers, child care centers and recreational sports centers.
“Long term commitments, or non-allocable fees, are not impacted under this proposal,” Evenson said. “But where students and their families are asked to pay for optional activities, the governor’s budget provides the freedom to choose.”
Allocable segregated fees at UW System schools vary from campus to campus. At UW-Madison, students paid $88.98 per semester for the 2016-17 school year, for a total allocable fees budget of $8.2 million.
By far the largest expense of the allocable fees is $4.7 million for the student government bus pass program. Margaret Bergamini, the student governments “bus pass advisor,” told the Daily Cardinal that 68 percent of students use the bus passes. They account for 2.9 million riders on the bus system, or about 22 percent of Metro’s total ridership.
Mick Rusch, spokesman for Madison’s Metro Transit, told the Capital Times, “This would affect any potential Metro loss in a way we couldn’t begin to guess at at this point.”
The next highest total is $1.3 million to fund student government “administrative” costs, or 16 percent of the total allocable segregated fees at UW-Madison. In the March student government election, there were 3,629 completed ballots on a campus of 41,129 students, or less than 9 percent voter turnout.
Not surprising, student government leaders that control allocable segregated fees do not like Walker’s proposal, even though it would provide students with a way to reduce their higher education costs.
“Students at UW System campuses are a part of a community that benefits from services provided by these reasonable fees.” Graham Pearce, UW System student representatives chairman, said in a statement after the budget proposal was released,
“Allowing individual students to opt-out of paying would destabilize the funding of these services and create an administrative burden to ensure only fee-paying students could access the services those fees support,” Pearce said.
The sentiment was echoed at the campus level as well.
“This proposal will result in a significant loss of funding to vital entities on campus that are solely for serving students,” said UW-La Crosse Student Association President Jacob Schimmel in a statement. “I hope that this proposal will be reconsidered going forward so that we can properly support the needs of students on our campus.”
Walker’s opt-out plan does have student support, particularly from his son. Alex Walker, chairman of the College Republican Federation of Wisconsin, told the Wisconsin State Journal that students should have a choice of whether they are going to fund student groups they don’t agree with.
“It is frustrating to see political activism funded by students’ segregated fees,” Walker said.
This is not the first time conservatives have tried to allow students to opt out of paying fees to fund student organizations they don’t want to support. In 1996, three conservative students attending UW-Madison law school filed a complaint in federal court claiming student government did not have the right to force them to subsidize student groups’ speech counter to their beliefs. After winning in the lower courts, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth that universities can force students to pay to subsidize speech through student fees so long as the decision-making process is viewpoint neutral.
Wisconsin Watchdog’s M. D. Kittle contributed.
James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.