Education

Wisconsin higher education officials anticipate much-needed funding in pending federal relief bill

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin higher education officials are hopeful after $22.7 billion for higher education was written into a new Covid-19 relief bill that on Thursday still sat pending a Presidential signature, after Congressional Republican leaders rejected a proposal to increase stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000.

Far more than the $14 billion provided in the Cares Act passed in March, education leaders say there’s still many unknowns in how the funding set aside for higher education institutions and students will be applied.

In a statement earlier this week, UW System President Tommy Thompson issued a statement expressing gratitude for the extra federal funding included in the bill that passed Congress on Monday. Rolf Wegenke, President of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said the added funding was a welcome relief after the CARES Act had left them far too short.

“We are very grateful for the support we’ve received,” he noted. “But there is currently a great need.”

A survey of WAICU’s 23 members (representing about 56,000 students) in March revealed an estimated $245 million to be incurred in expenses in 2020 for pandemic-related issues like getting courses online and health-related measures.

“We didn’t get anywhere close to that in the first round,” Wegenke noted. “There has been a lot of cutbacks and changes…Some colleges are laying off hundreds of staff and faculty. There are students who have gone home and not returned.”

Declining enrollment, lack of state funding for public institutions and decreasing tuition revenues for private schools, and other higher education financial constraints have been made worse throughout 2020 as expenses increased and fewer students enroll. Unemployment has been a factor there, Wegenke said, as students and their families evaluate whether they’re able to afford college or put it off until a steady job returns. That’s where expanded emergency aid for students in the pending federal relief legislation is so important, Wegenke said.

“It is our understand that there will be flexibility that students can use that money to pay for their tuition,” he said. “You have students and their parents who don’t have the wherewithal anymore for college and they’re putting it off.”

A Wisconsin Policy Forum research report released this month found declining enrollment, stagnant state funding and frozen tuition at UW System colleges are facing tougher financial constraints than public universities in other states, and a forward trajectory that may only get worse. Full-time equivalent enrollments, while remaining higher then 2000, have fallen by 8.4{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} since peaking in 2010. In June, the report said the UW System estimated a net loss of $158.6 million; in October, more furloughs and pay cuts were announced to counter the rising costs and decreasing revenues.

“The UW System has faced extraordinary financial challenges during this pandemic while successfully providing students an on-campus experience, including increased costs, significant state budget reductions and employee furloughs,” President Thompson said in a statement. “We are appreciative of these federal funds to help make up for the net $257 million loss so far in this year alone.”

The bill package also includes long-awaited simplifications to the FAFSA application and expanded eligibility to Pell grants.