A Plea to United Council: Let Me Save You!

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I can hear United Council members and staff saying, “We don’t need to be saved.” Well, your outcry against letting students opt out individually before each semester rather than be assessed an automatic, up-front fee for which the refund process is rarely publicized by UW campuses indicates otherwise: your fiscal fate is doomed unless you adopt the operational reforms described in my 27-page budget narrative.

United Council (UC) and You; Mandatory Refundable Fee (MRF) and Me

The United Council of UW Students, Inc. (UC) has fretted as of late about a “surprise” inclusion in the biennial budget proposal by the State of Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) of a UC-specific mandate: students at UC member campuses must be presented the option — before the semester’s tuition bill is due – of either paying the semesterly $3 mandatory refundable fee (MRF) to UC or withholding from UC his or her MRF payment for that semester. It would be the first time in UC’s existence that students could opt out of the fee before any payment occurs, thereby saving a yet-to-be-determined number of refund transactions.

The measure is a victory for student choice and efficiency. Although UC claims its current system of automatically charging the MRF with the rest of the student fees on each tuition bill is democratic, the fact is that member campuses decide via campus-wide referenda whether to join United Council for a given period, usually two years at a time. This means the following semester’s freshmen, transfer students, and other new enrollees are assessed the MRF without any input about the matter and are NOT informed in the text of their tuition bill that the MRF portion of the itemized bill must be requested in writing addressed to United Council’s home office if they indeed want that $3 refunded.

You read that correctly; tuition bills at UC member campuses presently do not explain or mention anything about the refund process for the MRF. The only people who know, such as myself, have been involved first-hand with United Council or were told second-hand by an opponent of United Council who cared enough about the issue to spread the word like I’m doing here. This lack of explanation also means the only time most students hear about United Council is when the campus student government association (SGA) is campaigning for or against the latest UC referendum — I need not extrapolate the consequence that SGA officials easily dominate the opinions of low-information non-SGA-official students.

Budgeting United Council’s Future

Although I believe the JFC’s tuition freeze is a misguided acquiescence to United Council at a time when students should be more incentivized to pursue trade school to fill those jobs which require fewer years of textbook education and more years of hands-on practice, I appreciate its amendment to the biennial budget to additionally include this advance opt-out notice to students of UC member campuses.

Despite UC’s public caterwauls to the press with the claim it will lose “18% to 20%” of its revenue, it has yet to implement any of the measures I describe in my ground-breaking austerity budget. I’m sure UC staff understand their organization will survive but nonetheless make the “end of UC as we know it” claim to mobilize constituent support for the status quo.

United Council has not yet released its Fiscal Year 2013-2014 budget. Instead, UC will consider incremental adjustments to its FY2012-2013 budget. Take the “United Council FY13-14 Budget Feedback” survey to opine on what is potentially United Council’s final budget.
I actually did my own rival budget calling for multiple reforms such as one-night General Assemblies, means-tested subsidy caps, and more effective leverage of the United Council brand to offer and monetize additional UC merchandise. If Governor Walker signs the JFC proposal switching the UC membership mechanism to offer a preemptive opt-out option for each individual student at member campuses, then United Council could survive by running itself more like a business by charging consulting fees to other nonprofits and by creating merchandise which non-students would want to buy for the “cool factor.”

Those who think such an approach would be too commercial should understand most UC visits to campuses are to market United Council as somehow being a “critical service” despite a history of seemingly coincidental victories; legislative alignment with UC’s goals has been very strongly tied to an overall zeitgeist or multi-interest climate of that type of policy, especially with non-tuition social issues.

The latest credit-claiming for a circumstantial policy action was when the JFC voted to freeze tuition at UW campuses: United Council was facing a thirteenth consecutive year of defeat on its attempts at a tuition freeze, when by a happy coincidence the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) revealed $648.2 million unrestricted reserves in the UW System, more than enough for an emergency.

Does anyone reading this really believe the JFC would have agreed to UC’s tuition proposal for unchanged tuition if the LFB had never shown JFC members the reserve balance? I don’t; tuition increases since the 2001-2002 academic year support my contrarian opinion. I also believe tuition has not risen nearly enough to discourage high school graduates from the more prestigious-sounding university systems when technical and vocational schools would get them into a comparably-paying job more reliably and sooner.

Although I will post later in the year about the quantitative easing of the college premium, I’ve made a solid case for United Council assenting to an MRF advance opt-out mechanism for students prior to each semester. I repeat the reasons:

  1. It is fairer to the low-information student who doesn’t read blogs like mine and is never told by his or her SGA officials or bursar’s office about the MRF refund procedure;
  2. It more accurately reflects the proportion of students who honestly want United Council to put words into their collective mouth at legislative and Board of Regents meetings; and
  3. It stimulates discussion of operational reforms which may not only reduce United Council’s expenses but also raise revenues through non-MRF means.

In case you missed the first few links to it, then here again is my Fiscal Year 2013-2014 United Council budget proposal. I also offer it in PDF for those who don’t have a compatible Microsoft Word viewer. Leave constructive criticism if you can think of any, and remember you may use United Council’s feedback form to tell staff and the Board of Directors what you think about my proposal.

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