Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Playing Politics with Financial Aid

She just won't quit. With only a few days left in her tenure as chancellor of UW Madison, Biddy Martin issued a press release this afternoon "asking" that the UW System Board of Regents allow Madison to spend $2.3 million of its new tuition hike on need-based financial aid.

She's a "champion" of need-based aid says the press release, and this must be music to the ears of all of us concerned about affordability--right?

Wrong. Sadly, Martin is playing politics yet again and thinking of what's best for her, rather than what's best for all students from Wisconsin's low-income families.

(1) Biddy Martin lobbied hard for new "flexibilities" for Madison this year and she got them. The money from the state arrives in a block grant, which means Madison now makes its own decisions about use of the differential tuition. She doesn't need to "ask" UW System for this-- and she knows it. (And boy, if she doesn't know that ....)

(2) So why didn't she simply just say "this is what the tuition should be used for," instead of issuing a press release directly to the Board of Regents and System President Kevin Reilly? Because then her actions would be exposed for what they are: a demand on the incoming interim chancellor David Ward. Yes, while she runs off into the distance from the mess she's created, Martin has already begun to boss Ward around. I suppose we can't be surprised.

(3) This is her chance to reiterate her claim that she's all about affordability. As noted in an earlier post, Martin says this is her big thing, reflects her values, etc-- and it's why she wants to go to Amherst. Except for this-- Amherst serves about as many students from low-income families as Madison could cram into a single lecture hall. Puhleese.

(4) This proposal-- hike tuition but give away a bunch of it to financial aid--raises eyebrows among thoughtful people about whether we "needed" the hike in the first place. Why not avoid hiking tuition and instead hold tuition flat for everyone? Martin draws on the arguments of some economists here who argue it's most efficient and equitable to charge everyone what they can afford, redistributing funds from wealthier families to needier ones. Again, sounds good in theory. Unfortunately it's just a mess in practice. In the real world, it pits students against students. It also sends an unintended message to state governments that institutions can take care of themselves. Just look at Martin-- has she said even one word about the importance of the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant? Did she provide input to UW System as to how those limited resources could best be spent? I served on the Legislature's Special Committee on the Reform of Financial Aid Programs last summer and the answer is "nope." We heard not one word from Madison's chancellor about her support for the need-based financial aid program that serves ALL students in Wisconsin public higher education. All we hear about is aid for Madison students. Doesn't smell like team spirit to me.

(5) Finally, there's an irony here. Last week economist Doug Harris and I issued a new study on the effectiveness of financial aid in Wisconsin. It demonstrates the need to target funds in order to make sure they are effective. Martin didn't attend the conference (on Madison's campus) where the paper was discussed, she didn't send a note of support for the event, and she hasn't asked to see the paper that was issued and that has been widely covered in the media. Funny decisions, for someone supposedly so supportive of need-based aid.

No, this is pure politics. Worse yet it's playing politics with the hearts and minds of students from low-income families. And those who truly strive to serve them-- all of them.