Wisconsin’s long fight over student wages and tuition

Tuition at the University of Wisconsin was once affordable for almost all Wisconsinites. It can be again.
A black-and-white image shows a UW-Madison student protest in the Library Mall sometime in the 1960’s. Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.

Tuition at the University of Wisconsin was once affordable for almost all Wisconsinites. It can be again.

In 1963 the Federal minimum wage was $1.25 per hour. However, the University of Wisconsin—a state institution—paid student workers 75 cents per hour.  

The UW’s position was that students were paid less because they were students, but like most people, students have to eat. And even though students were paid less they did not get discounts on food, rent, or tuition. So the students organized and formed a union to advocate for the university to pay them the federal minimum wage.

Today students are again responding to the high costs of education in Madison—and throughout the UW system—by demanding to raise student hourly wages. While the university system has expanded funding for low-income students, student debt and student wages would have been an issue if the original intent of the work-study program and the Wisconsin Idea had been supported by the UW and by the political leadership of the state. The development of work-study, union organization by students, and the state commitment to higher education all came together between 1963 and 1965.


Wisconsin eats its seed corn

Up until the mid-1960s the Wisconsin Idea—the political compact supported by the majority within the state—essentially said pay your taxes and you get good county roads (to allow delivery of milk), access to support from UW for agriculture (UW Extension), and access to the University of  Wisconsin for your children. If they had high grades they could get into UW-Madison. If they had lower grades they could still go to UW-Milwaukee, UW-Platteville (Engineering), or what were then the state teachers colleges. 

For many reasons—more than can be detailed here—that consensus broke down as Republicans increasingly focused on cutting social programs. The intensity of this drive seemed to be directly proportional to the efforts that Black people were successfully making to achieve measures of racial equality. The new political environment was defined by cutting taxes, undermining social welfare, and reducing the percentage of state support to the University of Wisconsin system.

On the most basic level, the economic sustainability of the state increasingly depends on a highly educated and skilled workforce. Endangering this resource through short-sighted and almost confiscatory tuition levels is an attack on all of our futures. Several factors contribute to the burden of student debt. But one of them—especially in Wisconsin—is that  both parties have made political decisions to reduce public support for higher education. In response, the University of Wisconsin turned towards increasing tuition to make up for lost income. Student debt reflects a neoliberal thought process that drives politicians to deliberately undercut public expenditures that serve the common good.  

A highly educated workforce is the future of the state. Policymakers limiting the ability of state residents to come to the premier educational institutes of Wisconsin are like farmers using their seed corn to make popcorn.

UW students attempt to unionize

In October of 1963 a group of hourly student employees formed the Wisconsin Student Employees Association, a labor union. (Full disclosure: I was one of the officers of the union.) WISEM saw itself explicitly as a union, not a normal student organization. It acquired National Labor Relations Board union sign-up cards and organized itself as a union. WISEM claimed that since the UW was engaged in interstate commerce, the workers were engaged in protected action under the National Labor Relations Act. WISEM asserted that a worker is a worker and that a wage system that discriminated against hourly student workers because they were students was morally and ethically wrong. 

Organized labor in the form of the Madison Federation of Labor refused to help, as did the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, then organizing blue-collar and technical workers at UW. However the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 695 and United Electrical Workers District 11 provided us with advice and, in the IBT’s case, crucial organizational support.

The UW administration responded as they have to all efforts to organize—they tried to expel the leadership of WISEM. This failed because Nathan Feinsinger, a nationally known faculty member of the law school, intervened and offered his services on WISEM’s behalf. At the same time, WISEM had begun collecting cards and in a very short period of time had about 300 signed union authorization cards.  

The UW, which at that time saw itself as a progressive institution, set up a committee to meet with WISEM leadership. That committee consisted of several of the leading progressive faculty members from the economics and sociology departments. Some had long-time connections to the labor movement, and while they talked the union’s bargaining committee to death, they did not want the UW to take direct action to expel the committee.

As discussions proceeded with the UW, a second pathway opened up. Dean of Students Martha Petersen contacted WISEM and began discussions with one of our officers about the idea of work-study. In theory, student hourly workers in this program would be able to earn enough money to pay for tuition and still be able to go to school. In other words, the discussion started from the need for a certain level of income, not from the point of view of cheap labor. 

The second criteria were that the hourly wage had to be sufficient to allow the student to go to school full time. Thus the original concept was to limit the number of hours worked. This system could only work if tuition was low—and indeed, in September of 1963, tuition at UW for in-state residents was approximately $110 per semester. Out-of-state students paid about $300. Working 10 hours per week at the federal minimum wage produced $12.50, and for the 16 week semester resulted in $200—enough to pay tuition. Even an out-of-state student could work 15 hours or so and be able to pay tuition. Of course, this left living expenses unpaid for… but still. Knowing that the burden of tuition was gone was and would be a step forward.

Petersen became President of Barnard College and from that perch launched the federal programs that became work-study. Today students can receive FWS funds at approximately 3,400 participating postsecondary institutions. Hourly wages must not be less than the federal minimum wage. 

In May 1964, near the end of the semester WISEM began internal discussions as to how we could disrupt the system enough to convince the UW to offer the $1.25 we sought. As the semester came to a close, a rumor started that the IBT was not going to deliver toilet paper to the dorms.


The semester ended without any action. However, a few weeks later, the UW administration contacted WISEM and told us that starting more or less immediately, all student hourly workers would be paid the federal minimum wage. One consequence was that WISEM never reconstituted itself when most students returned after in September, except that workers at the Memorial Union formed themselves (eventually) into the Memorial Union Labor Organization.

Likewise, a year later, some of those active in WISEM also became early activists in the formation of the Teaching Assistants Association.

A path forward

By 1980 the system that we have now, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, was solidly in place. Tax cuts were the defining discussion of every political campaign. Acquiring federal or private money to support the UW was the model of choice. In order to make up the difference between what UW needed and what it was able to raise from those sources, tuition and fees were increased. Essentially, the vast majority of Wisconsin high school students were priced out of attending UW in Madison and elsewhere unless they had access to debt, either personal or through their families. Work-study is now totally inadequate; no one could possibly earn enough money working through work-study to make a real dent in the costs of tuition, fees, and living expenses. For example, a student earning $7.50 per hour working for 16 weeks at 20 hours would earn $2,400—not even half of the in-state tuition.

The concept of student hourly employment is to allow students to work a limited number of hours and get paid enough to earn tuition. In-state tuition in the 2022-2023 school year is $5,398.82 per semester or $10,796.40 for two semesters. The hourly rate needed at 10 hours per week, for 16 weeks in each semester, comes to $33.73 per hour. Of course, if a student works 15 or 20 hours per week, the hourly cost goes down to $22.49—but the original idea is that the student is a student, not a low-cost worker for the UW.

In order to change the balance of forces, three things must happen simultaneously. 

1) First, all student hourly workers need to organize in a union to advocate for higher wages. In the Spring of 2023 hourly student workers, especially in food service, took the first step by organizing themselves into what many hoped to be a union. However, by the autumn of 2023 the effort seems to have disintegrated under the combined pressure of the UW resisting while also ameliorating working conditions  and adjusting pay somewhat in response to students organizing. It is worth noting that undergraduate organizing has succeeded in a number of places, for example Yale University, Tufts, Grinnell, and Dartmouth. But in Wisconsin the destruction of public sector unions under Act 10 eliminated this base of support within the rest of the campus workforce, making the task of organizing undergraduates much more difficult.

An identifiable organization that has a significant level of participation is the starting point for the direct action that will probably be needed as well as for the political mobilization required to win the minimum demands. A union is necessary because it is an expression of its members’ desires, not an appendage of the UW or any other organization. It enables the students to act on their own behalf in their own interests. It is a legally recognized institution, not a gift from the employer. Note: We are focused on building the union, not on asking permission to do it. Any employer, including the University of Wisconsin, will find a way to negotiate with their workforce if the workforce is organized.

2) Pay equity: Any student hourly worker doing substantially the same work as a current full-time employee of UW needs to be paid the same hourly rate. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator calls for a minimum living wage in Madison of $17.52.  A more reasonable rate would be closer to $20 per hour, as the goals are for the UW to provide a living wage for all UW employees and to satisfy the original intent of work-study: enable a student to work enough hours to pay tuition, and not so many as to endanger any academic performance. (This rate is still not enough to allow a student to work 10 hours per week, but it is a start.)

3) Progressive leaders must restore the Wisconsin Idea. This will not be easy but there are potential allies. These allies include the UW faculty, staff, and hourly workers. The vigorous support of faculty and staff will help build a path forward. Winning proper funding for higher education will require the full participation of the Wisconsin labor movement, and of progressive social action groups like Freedom Inc. and Voces de la Frontera.

In other words, if “we” are to ensure the economic future of the state, the political leadership of the state must develop a political campaign at all levels of government calling for proper state support of the UW System, including the fair taxation needed to do it. Criteria for proper funding include affordability of higher education to all state residents’ wages throughout the system that are at a minimum a living wage based on a 40 hour week with benefits.

No one group of people or organization can accomplish all that needs to be done to build the type of interconnected system required to enable proper financial support for the workers who make the system possible and the students who must be served by that system. Faculty, elected political leaders, and the trade union movement can support them, especially acting within the context of restoring the Wisconsin Idea.

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