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Will another shoe drop along with tuition?

RIVER FALLS -- Cautious optimism.

That's what Dean Van Galen said abounds at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where officials await details on a likely tuition decrease from Gov. Scott Walker.

The Republican governor unveiled the surprise proposal during last month's State of the State speech, but offered few particulars. The details are expected to be released Wednesday, Feb. 8, in Walker's budget proposal to lawmakers.

Van Galen, UWRF's chancellor, said he's patiently waiting to see what that proposal will pack.

"It's potentially very positive," he said. "But we really need to see what that all looks like in his proposal."

What has him hedging is to what degree that undergraduate tuition cut will be funded by the state. While the prospect of lower tuition might sound enticing to students and their families, it means less money going into university coffers for faculty, staff and other costs. Van Galen said at UWRF, a 2 percent cut would mean a $669,000 setback — if funds aren't deployed to offset it.

Walker has said the tuition cut will be backfilled by money from the state's general fund, but how much remains to be seen.

UW-System has requested a $42.5 million increase in the state's next two-year budget, and if it's fully funded, Van Galen said that would include $1.2 million for UWRF.

History, however, shows that prospect may be unlikely. Asked how many times the UW-System budget request has been fully funded in recent years, Van Galen said it hasn't occurred in his seven years at River Falls.

Still, he said a renewed push from Wisconsin's business and community leaders for UW-System funding could factor into the politics.

"I'm optimistic," Van Galen said. "There is a groundswell of support for the UW that we haven't necessarily seen in the past."

Rep. Shannon Zimmerman said he supports college affordability and sees a tuition decrease as a step in the right direction, provided that taxpayer funds are accounted for.

The River Falls Republican said the four-year tuition freeze that's been in place has been running up against rising costs.

"Something has to give," he said Friday.

Performance possibilities

It's possible Walker's funding support could come with strings, as it has in other states that have tied funding to university performance. Van Galen said those performance metrics have included things like graduation rates, success of Pell Grant recipients and number of graduates placed in high-need fields, such as STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) careers.

He said if performance requirements comes to pass in Wisconsin, he hopes it won't be a one-size-fits-all mandate.

For instance, Van Galen said it "would be inappropriate" to expect that campuses at Madison — UW's flagship university — and Parkside — a state college with a 33 percent graduation rate — to have the same retention/graduation figures.

"It's important with performance-based metrics to be sensitive to the unique missions" at each campus, the chancellor said, calling for universities to have some controls and influence over how performance is evaluated.

The prospect of performance-based initiatives is something Zimmerman said he backs. He said Friday the concept exists in Wisconsin's technical colleges, but not at the university level.

"I would support that," he said.

Van Galen said an "ideal" scenario would be one allowing for campus officials to provide input on particular performance goals at their respective universities.

The overall UW-System budget includes a 2 percent base salary increase for faculty and staff — one that Van Galen said he supports.

"It's really important that we adequately compensate our faculty and staff," he said, adding that those workers have seen just two 1 percent pay plans in the last eight years.

That the average salaries for faculty and staff in UW-System trail their national peers by 18 percent "continues to be a major concern," Van Galen said.

Lawmakers will first consider operational and capital funding for the state's universities before tackling worker compensation, likely in May or June.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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