Wisconsin students protest tuition increase

Tuition increase? Heck, no! Budget cuts? Heck, no! Protest? Sure, why not?

Armed with plastic piggy banks, posters and plenty of opinions, about 500 students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other colleges marched down the city streets and onto the Capitol steps Wednesday, chanting against proposals to increase tuition and decrease state funding of the UW System.

Also Wednesday, Jay L. Smith, president of the system’s Board of Regents, said he would schedule a meeting of the board’s executive committee within the next few days to consider lifting a freeze on admissions that was put in place about two weeks ago in response to the proposed budget cuts.

The students’ ire was directed at the state Assembly, which passed a measure that would cut state aid to the system by about $108 million while increasing in-state tuition 8 percent and out-of-state tuition 23 percent. Their hopes were directed toward the state Senate, where Democrats in the majority have vowed to restore much of the funding.

“Senate, please, don’t steal our degrees!” students yelled while holding posters that ranged from the somewhat creative (Show us the money!) to the vulgar.

The protest was organized by Associated Students of Madison, the UW-Madison student government.

About two weeks ago, the UW System suspended admissions, saying it would be foolish to continue admitting students if the universities do not have proper resources to educate them. It also froze hiring.

Regents received a letter Wednesday signed by the 18 Senate Democrats who promised financial support for the system, specifically its now-endangered economic stimulus package, which would have enrolled 2,600 more students in high-tech and science fields while bringing on more faculty. Smith said he appreciated the Democrats’ commitment.

The current students, however, are more worried about their tuition bills.

“I don’t think the students should be the ones to pay for (the budget crisis) out of their pockets,” said Erin Salisbury, 21, an elementary education major in her fourth year. “It should be the state’s problem, not the students’. I just think our school’s reputation is going down with this.”

The protesters said out-of-state students faced an unfair burden because of their proposed tuition jumps, which include a one-time 10 percent tuition surcharge. The students also protested the Assembly’s decision to cut a $1 million financial aid program for study abroad.

Upon reaching the Capitol, 33 students took the piggy banks, which were clear and empty except for a note in each listing the students’ demands, and delivered them to the senators’ offices.

“I heard you outside,” Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Chvala said to the four-person delegation that greeted him. He assured the protesters that the budget bill that passes his chamber will be kinder to students and the UW System. “We’ve just got to set priorities,” he said.

Also on Wednesday, Chvala, D-Madison and Sen. Mark Meyer, D-La Crosse, sent a letter to UW System President Katharine Lyall pledging that the Senate’s budget bill would restore many of the cuts.

“We hope that these assurances will allow the UW System to at least on a limited basis begin to restart the enrollment process,” the letter said.

After Democrats sent that letter, Smith issued a statement saying that he would schedule a regents meeting to reconsider the admissions freeze.