MILWAUKEE, Wis.—Maximizing affordability and containing student debt are the University of Wisconsin System’s top priorities, President Ray Cross said Thursday afternoon as he offered a preview of the UW System’s 2015-17 biennial budget plan.
Addressing the UW Board of Regents, Cross said that affordability is one of four “pillars” of the two-year budget plan he will present to the Board at its August 21-22 meeting.
“You can look at just about every news outlet and see that student debt and affordability are at the forefront of student and family concerns,” Cross said. “And they must be for the UW, too.
“We want to be aggressive in our efforts here, and we have several actions that will help make that possible,” he continued.
One of those actions Cross outlined is a new student financial aid incentive.
“We are seeking your support for eliminating the waiting list for UW students eligible for Wisconsin Higher Education (WHEG) grants,” he told regents. Under the proposal, the UW System would work with the Higher Education Aids Board to ensure that all eligible UW students receive a WHEG grant.
Last year, 3,581 UW students eligible for a WHEG grant were put on a wait-list and ultimately turned away because the program lacked enough funds to provide for all who qualified.
“We must remedy that,” Cross said. The UW System will request $14.9 million over the new biennium to eliminate wait-listing, he explained. The funding level will allow the average grant amount to be increased in the second year of the biennium, Cross added.
Other actions intended to help students afford and complete a UW degree include:
- a tuition freeze at all UW institutions for the 2014-15 academic year,
- a new 30-credit transfer agreement between the UW System and the Wisconsin Technical College System, and
- dual- and concurrent-enrollment UW courses offered in public high schools as part of Wisconsin’s new Course Options program.
Along with affordability, Cross said another key pillar of his biennial budget plan involves major reform of financial management and planning procedures, which Cross described as “perhaps the most significant internal organizational changes since the creation of the UW System” 43 years ago.
“We are developing new tools and new ways to analyze and manage our finances,” he explained. He said he will be designating a project manager and a review panel to ensure compatibility with Legislative Audit Bureau standards for fund balances and to promote financial transparency.
Referring to Board President Michael J. Falbo, Cross added, “I know [he] and others on the Board feel strongly about this, and I want to reiterate that we do, too.”
Cross’ other two pillars are interrelated to the university’s successful pursuit of the Wisconsin Idea, he explained.
“We will more deeply engage the university in the challenges facing our state,” he explained. “We cannot address all of the state’s challenges, but we can focus on a few. Can the university help reduce the achievement gap of underrepresented minorities in our schools? Can the university help create jobs by helping Stage II companies grow? Can we engage in these and other problems and make a difference? We can and we must.”
In order to successfully tackle those and other public challenges, Cross said the UW System must be able to recruit and maintain high-quality faculty and staff.
“We are committing ourselves to developing effective, sustainable compensation solutions so that the UW System can compete in the global higher education marketplace,” he said.
“A multi-year plan will be needed to secure resources and the statutory flexibility to use the resources we already have to responsibly compensate our nationally recognized faculty and staff,” Cross added.
UW regents will review and act on specific details of the biennial budget plan in August. Following Board approval, the plan will be forwarded to Gov. Scott Walker for consideration as part of his comprehensive two-year state budget.