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A banner with a graphic of mascot Bucky Badger's face hung between the columns of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 25, 2014. (UW-Madison photo) A banner with a graphic of mascot Bucky Badger's face hung between the columns of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 25, 2014. (UW-Madison photo)

A banner with a graphic of mascot Bucky Badger's face hung between the columns of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 25, 2014. (UW-Madison photo)

By Hope Karnopp April 24, 2024

Are Democrats right that Republicans are to blame for low UW System state funding?

If Your Time is short

  • Wisconsin did rank 42nd for funding its public, four-year universities, according to a national report. 

  • An Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo shows Republicans have approved the lowest percentage of state funding since they took control, but that’s part of a long-term decline.

  • Republicans lifted the tuition freeze, which helped the system’s finances, though that’s a small piece of the big picture.

Outside reports released earlier this month showed warning signs for the financial viability of the University of Wisconsin System’s universities and signaled future cuts to the state’s public campuses. 

Around the same time, state Rep. Greta Neubauer took to X to attach the blame to Republican lawmakers. Neubauer is a Democrat from Racine and leads her party in the Assembly. 

"The GOP has failed to invest in our campuses, making WI fall to 42nd in the nation in state support," said a graphic attached to Neubauer’s tweet, which was posted April 11 and used the postal abbreviation for Wisconsin. 

After the reports came out, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers also called on Republicans to approve more funding. He also blamed Republicans for "waging war" on the system for more than a decade.

As more of the state’s universities face layoffs and branch campus closures, we decided to look into how the university system has been funded in recent years.

Here’s what we found.

Wisconsin does rank near the bottom of states in funding public universities 

Before we get into the weeds of how the UW System is funded, let’s look at the second half of Neubauer’s claim: that Wisconsin ranks 42nd in state funding of universities. 

Neubauer is referring to a national State Higher Education Finance report released in May 2023. 

Based on 2022 data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, Wisconsin ranked 42nd for public funding for four-year colleges.

Only Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Vermont provided less state funding.

Interestingly, the report showed Wisconsin’s two-year, technical college system was funded fourth best in the country. 

In other words, Wisconsin had the third-largest gap in state funding between technical colleges and public universities. Tech colleges received about $14,000 per student, versus $6,200 per student at UW campuses.

An April 2023 report from the closer-to-home Wisconsin Policy Forum painted the same picture by pulling from the 2021 data.

The report found that the University of Wisconsin System ranked 43rd nationally for per-student funding in 2021. The technical college system, in contrast, was ranked fifth best.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported at the time, technical colleges receive support from local property taxes, while the UW System receives money only from the state.

If the two systems were combined, Wisconsin’s overall public funding for higher education would fall near the middle and above the national average. 

But Neubauer is clearly talking about the UW System’s poorer rankings. Let’s look closer at that funding and the Republicans’ role in it.

Analysis shows difference in what system requested versus what Republicans approved

PolitiFact Wisconsin reached out to Neubauer’s office for more specifics to back up Neubauer’s claim that Republicans have "failed to invest" in UW. 

Her communications director, Sidney Litke, shared a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that compares how much funding the UW System has requested with what the budget-writing committee approved.

For context: Republicans have controlled that Joint Finance Committee since 2011. They often scrap Evers’ budget, which he shapes using agency requests, and write their own version of the budget.

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So, although Evers is a Democrat, Republicans essentially have control of determining funding for the public university system in the state budget.

In 2023-25, the system requested about $293 million in state general purpose revenue, and Republicans approved about $41.4 million. That’s a difference of about $252 million, the analysis shows. 

There were two budgets that had more of a difference: In 2011-13, there was a $418 million difference between what UW requested and the committee approved, and a $339 million difference in 2015-17. 

Some years were much less, including a $12 million difference in 2017-19. 

If you’re getting lost in the numbers, this basically means Neubauer’s office is showing that Republicans have often approved much less funding than the UW System has requested. 

We should note that even Evers has pared down the full amount the UW System asks for in his budget proposal. That was the case in this latest budget cycle.

But for this fact-check, it’s a good indicator to look at.

Percentage of state funding in UW budget has gone down steadily

Another chart in the memo shows that the portion of the UW System’s budget that comes from state funding has gone down in the last 10 years. 

In the last four years, that percentage has been around 18%. In 2016-17, it was the lowest at 16.8%. In 2011-12, it was at 17.9%.

In the early 2000s, state funding made up around 25% of UW’s budget. In the early 1990s, it made up as much as 50%. 

It’s been a fairly steady decline since then, a trend that appears to transcend what party was in charge of determining that funding.

But in general, the chart shows that Republicans are approving state funding that makes up a smaller part of the UW System’s overall budget.

Republicans did lift the tuition freeze, which UW said would help finances

Although Republicans have been responsible for crafting the budget over the past decade, there are still factors that affect the system’s finances that they aren’t solely responsible for.

Take the now-defunct freeze on in-state tuition, which the system had asked to be lifted because it threatened campuses’ financial stability. 

Republican lawmakers began that freeze in 2013-14, and removed the freeze in 2021. 

In his first two budget proposals, Evers supported continuing the freeze but asked Republicans for funding to offset the money lost by not increasing tuition. The budget he signed in 2019 preserved the freeze.

Bottom line: By lifting the tuition freeze, Republicans may have helped the system manage its finances in some way. Evers could have crafted a line-item veto to remove it, so he effectively kept the freeze going.

But Neubauer is talking specifically about investments of state money, and the tuition freeze is only one piece of the larger picture. 

Our ruling

Neubauer said "the GOP has failed to invest in our campuses, making WI fall to 42nd in the nation in state support."

Two reports show that the second part of her claim is correct: Wisconsin has ranked around 42nd or 43rd in funding it’s four-year public universities.

The first part of her claim, that Republicans are to blame, is supported by a memo that shows Republicans have approved less funding than the system requested since they started controlling the budget process.

That decline in funding has been happening steadily since about the 1980s, but has reached its lowest point under the current Republican majority. 

And although Republicans lifted a tuition freeze in 2021 — something the system said would help its finances — that’s a small factor, and something both parties played a role in keeping around, including Evers.

With those caveats in mind, we rate her claim Mostly True.


Our Sources

X, Representative Greta Neubauer, April 11, 2024

Gov. Tony Evers, Gov. Evers to ask Legislature to approve largest increase in state support for UW System in over two decades, April 12, 2024

State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) Report, Public Higher Education Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) Enrollment by Sector and State, fiscal year 2019-2022, May 2023

Wisconsin Policy Forum, Higher Education Funding Stabilizes Overall but Enrollment still Falling, April 2023.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin funds UW System and technical colleges differently: One ranks 43rd nationally, the other ranks 5th, April 20, 2023

Email exchange, Sidney Litke, communications director for Rep. Greta Neubauer, April 17 and 18, 2024

Legislative Fiscal Bureau, UW System Budget GPR as a Percentage of Total Funding and Agency Requested versus Amounts Provided under Select Budget Acts, April 17, 2024

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5 takeaways from Gov. Evers' budget for college students and campuses, May 24, 2023

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, What to know about UW's 10-year tuition freeze and what's ahead for Wisconsin college students, Aug. 11, 2022

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tuition, student loan debt and 'worthless' degrees: Where Tony Evers and Tim Michels stand on higher education, Oct. 26, 2022

Department of Administration, Evers’ Veto Message for 2019-21 Budget, July 3, 2019

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More by Hope Karnopp

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