Some low-income University of Wisconsin System students will have their tuition and fees completely covered under a new statewide scholarship program launching next fall.
The "Wisconsin Tuition Promise" program will be open to full-time, in-state students whose family income is below $62,000 and are either starting at or transferring to a UW campus in fall 2023.
Officials said they will go forward with it whether or not they get state money specifically for it in the 2023-25 budget.
At a Monday news conference on the UW-Milwaukee campus, UW officials framed the scholarship program as a "gamechanger" that will help more students graduate and ease the workforce shortage straining the state.
"We are in a war for talent," UW System President Jay Rothman said. "We are not graduating enough people with four-year degrees and graduate degrees in order to help sustain the economic growth of the state. We hear that from employers all the time."
The program would be transformative for UWM, where about one in every five students would qualify, Chancellor Mark Mone said. A quarter of the university's students are underrepresented students of color and more than a third are considered low-income. The average student has nearly $7,500 in unmet needs — and that's after taking into account loans, grants, scholarships and family contributions.
"This will help close that gap," he said.
Two other chancellors at the news conference, Debbie Ford of UW-Parkside and John Chenoweth of Whitewater, also described the need for a tuition promise program.
The System's program essentially extends Bucky's Tuition Promise, a UW-Madison full-tuition program for low-income students, to all other UW campuses. The UW-Madison program launched in 2018 and the first group of students who received the scholarships graduated this spring.
Like the UW-Madison program, the statewide tuition promises will operate as last-dollar awards, meaning the UW System covers what isn’t met by other financial aid a student receives, such as a Pell grant and other scholarships. The amounts will vary by student but UW officials estimate the average student award over four years will be $4,500.
But unlike the Madison program, which is funded through a mix of private money and institutional resources including tuition revenue, the UW System program would be funded by taxpayers.
Rothman is asking for about $25 million to cover the first two years of the program.
He said a UW System education is the most affordable in the Midwest, but fewer low-to-moderate-income and first-generation students are attending UW campuses. This suggests to him that even though tuition for in-state students has been frozen for a decade, a state college education is increasingly out of reach for some.
Proposal is a centerpiece of budget
The UW Board of Regents will vote on the proposal Thursday, the first step that kicks off the state budget process.
Altogether, the UW System is asking for a $262.6 million budget increase over 2023-25. That includes $123 million to provide employees with 4% salary increases in each of the next two years and $115 million for a variety of other needs, including filling critical staffing needs and covering inflationary increases for goods and services.
The UW System pitched the Wisconsin Tuition Promise program in the last state budget, too.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included the program in his state budget request but the Republican-controlled Legislature stripped it out of their own so the idea went nowhere.
Asked why this time could be different, Rothman said he's spent time with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle since starting the job earlier this summer.
"They are all committed to doing what's right for the state," he said. "And I think when they continually see the issues around talent, that we don't have that talent we need in the state to be successful, I think they will agree with us moving forward that this is a good investment."
UW officials estimate the Wisconsin Tuition Promise will cost $13.8 million for the first year of the program. By year four, when the program is fully installed, the program is estimated to cost $35.6 million annually and support 8,000 students.
There's no separate application for the Wisconsin Tuition Promise. Financial aid staff will notify qualifying students based on the information they provide in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Also known as the FAFSA, the form can be filed beginning Oct. 1.
UWM students interviewed on Monday about the new program were supportive of making college more affordable. But as sophomore Hudson Menne pointed out, students whose families make more than the $62,000 income cutoff may also be struggling.
Menne, a marketing major, said he wouldn't qualify for the program. But his parents also aren't helping him out financially. He estimates he'll have as much as $100,000 in loans when he graduates.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: UW tuition promise program to help low income students afford college