In which I am impressed by Biddy Martin’s political savvy

The University of Wisconsin, like all big public institutions, faces a future of declining state support.  And, like all big public institutions, we have to figure out how to keep doing our jobs despite that.  Chancellor Martin’s proposal is a New Badger Partnership, under which UW would be allowed to set its own tuition, as Michigan does.  The sticker price of a Wisconsin education would go up, and the extra revenue would be plowed back into financial aid in order to keep college affordable for middle-class students and their parents.

I don’t know enough about higher education policy to comment on the merits of the plan.  But it’s kind of a work of political genius, isn’t it?  To the Democrats in the state government, Martin can say “UW needs to do much, much more to give working families a chance at a world-class education, even if rich Chicago parents take a hit. ” And to the Republicans, she can say, “I came here to run this university like a business, and that means charging market rates.”

Why it’s genius:  because she’s right on both counts!  The ultimate free-market dream is differential pricing:  charging each customer the maximum they’re willing to pay.  Most businesses don’t get to examine their customers’ bank balance before naming a price.  But UW does.  If the university can be more capitalist than the capitalists, redistribute wealth downward, and reduce our dependence on legislative whim, all at the same time, why shouldn’t we?

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8 thoughts on “In which I am impressed by Biddy Martin’s political savvy

  1. Andrei Caldararu says:

    Unfortunately this game may not play out, because it is enough for one legislator to shout “Fire!” (that is, “the liberals are raising the tuition”) and all the legislators will be out of the House. The problem I think is that manipulating tuition is a highly charged political game, and no legislator will let this golden egg-laying goose get out for free.

    I heard that U Colorado gets less than 10% of their revenue in money from the state (I think we get about 17%) but the state still wants complete control over all the University’s doings.

  2. rweba says:

    Yeah, I have heard that other state universities tried this argument without success so unfortunately I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

  3. Jason Starr says:

    In New York State, the SUNY system had a very similar proposal last year which was supported by the governor, and the proposal still failed in the legislature. At least in New York State, the legislature does not want to give up their power to set tuition (or at least determine how much of collected tuition is actually distributed to SUNY).

  4. Adam says:

    I don’t know about Michigan, but it seems to mean heading for the system that Pitt and Penn State operate under–basically private universities that get an (ever-dwindling) state subsidy in return for charging a lower in-state tuition. But are you guys state employees? that makes it trickier.

  5. Xander Faber says:

    Why do state legislatures care so much about being able to set tuition prices?

  6. BCnrd says:

    Xander, the illusion of control is very important to politicians, and having the final word on tuition rates is a thought-free way of creating the aura of control. To substitute that with voting on proposals related to topics requiring actual awareness of educational issues would take up valuable time which could be spent on more important things like fund-raising for the next election.

  7. JSE says:

    BCnrd, do you have any first-hand take on whether you think “Michiganization” would be good for the University of Wisconsin?

  8. BCnrd says:

    JSE, I tended to remain as ignorant as possible about what was going on behind the scenes (e.g., if I remain clueless about how things work in university bureaucracies, perhaps it decreases the odds that I will be asked to serve as a dept. chair), so I don’t have a good answer. To me everything seemed to be working really smoothly at UM, but maybe there were complications about which I was totally unaware. If you want an informed answer on this question, then I recommend you ask SMD. One point to keep in mind is that there may be a special dynamic created by many state politicians having been students at UM (at least I think that used to be the case, presumably still is, but what do I know?); I don’t know how that sort of thing would apply at UW.

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