Governor Scott Walker’s move to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin was just his opening salvo. His full budget proposal for the coming biennium, if passed as proposed, will reduce aid to education at all levels, seniors, Medicaid and special state sponsored medical care for the indigent. Regardless of the merits of these cuts, there can be no doubt that one of the most pernicious and short-sighted attempts to save money in this budget balancing act is directed at undocumented university students.
Under the previous gubernatorial administration of Democrat Jim Doyle, a bill was passed and signed that enabled undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at University of Wisconsin System universities if they graduated from high school in Wisconsin and had lived in Wisconsin continuously for three years prior to graduation. Wisconsin was the eleventh state to pass such legislation, following Texas, Oklahoma, New York, California and others. The Walker budget proposal reverses the legislation passed under the Doyle administration, and if passed, will again force undocumented students to pay non-resident tuition in the University of Wisconsin System schools.
By way of explanation for those not familiar with the plight of undocumented students, these students were brought to the United States by their undocumented parents, and consequently, they are not legal residents of the United States because they were not born here. In Wisconsin it is completely legal for students in this situation to enter the K-12 public school system, attend school, and graduate from high school. On application to the state university system, however, the newly minted high school graduate must declare himself or herself a non-resident of the state of Wisconsin. Prior to the legislation passed during the Doyle administration, undocumented students paid non-resident tuition in the university system, even though many of these students had lived in Wisconsin for most of their lives. Under the Walker administration, they will once again pay out-of-state tuition rates.
The differences in resident and non-resident tuition throughout the University of Wisconsin System are substantial. At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where I have taught for the past 34 years, the undergraduate non-resident pays almost twice what the resident pays. Here are a couple screen shots from the UW-Whitewater Web site.
As can be seen, the difference in resident and non-resident tuition for the typical student at UW-Whitewater is $7,574 per year. At a number of Wisconsin schools the difference is higher. Adding housing and food, the cost per year for the non-resident (or the resident, but undocumented) student is easily $20,000 per year. For many undocumented students the increased cost of tuition makes a college education impossible.
Scott Walker’s administration intends to eliminate at least part of the budget deficit by placing the burden on the backs of those who can afford it least. This is bad public policy for several reasons. First, the policy is simply short-sighted. The future of Wisconsin and indeed, of our nation, depends on an educated workforce that enjoys a high standard of living. Greater personal income that comes with more education produces more tax revenues and more public services. As my students often say, this is a “no-brainer.” Our future prosperity requires a continued public investment in education.
Second, the policy supports the creation of a permanent and resentful under-class composed of immigrants who are denied the promise of the American Dream.
And third, this policy feels mean-spirited. The targets of this legislation are largely young Latinos, often poor and mostly Mexican, whose only wish is to acquire a college education just like any other student who has lived and attended school in Wisconsin. This policy does not lift the human spirit. Instead, it demeans it.