Since 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has guaranteed free tuition for students from low-income households as part of its Bucky’s Tuition Promise Program.
Tommy Thompson, Interim President of UW System wanted to expand the program statewide – that would mean any student with a family income of $ 60,000 or less could attend any UW school for free. Democratic Governor Tony Evers backed the proposal in his budget request.
But Republican lawmakers removed the proposal from the state budget with little discussion.
When Thompson announced last August that he wanted to expand the free college program statewide, he said the pandemic was making college affordability a more urgent priority.
“As part of our commitment to making quality education more widely accessible, what better time than now during this COVID to give poor families a break and allow them to come into our grand system?” Thompson said at a board meeting.
>> As free tuition “promise” programs grow, what about Wisconsin?
Stevens Point Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland was happy to see the proposal. Shankland has tried during previous legislative sessions to increase financial assistance to public schools.
âYou think about how many first-generation and low-income students that would affect statewide,â Shankland said. “And it really changes their lives and the opportunities they would have.”
But the Republican-led joint finance committee did not include the tuition pledge program in its budget. Instead, the committee ended the UW system’s tuition fee freeze for eight years, which could increase costs for students in the years to come.
The finance committee’s budget version was eventually passed by the GOP majority Assembly and Senate, and signed off by Evers.
A spokesperson for UW System declined an interview request for this story, instead referring WUWM to Thompson’s declaration from the state budget.
âFor them, the removal of the tuition fee freeze, which really makes higher education less affordable and puts it beyond the reach of even our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, came as a surprise to many,â said Shankland.
Finance committee co-chairs Republicans Mark Born and Howard Marklein did not respond to interview requests for the story.
During the budget floor debate, Republican Rep. Shae Sortwell of Two Rivers said people who don’t attend college shouldn’t have to subsidize costs for others.
âInstead of the people who take the opportunity to pay it, they want to take money out of the pockets of hard-working factory workers in the state of Wisconsin, and say, ‘You should fund the people who are have a better life [college.] We don’t care if you don’t benefit, âSortwell said.
The expansion of the Tuition Promise program to all UW campuses has been estimated at around $ 40 million over the next two years.
Douglas Harris is professor of economics at Tulane University. He studies the impact of free tuition programs on college enrollment and completion.
Here is his response to Sortwell’s argument: âI think it’s best to think about it in terms of the collective good. What does this do for the state as a whole? And the evidence suggests that it would be good for the state as a whole and good for just about everyone. “
Harris said one of the main benefits of Tuition Promise programs is that they solve the complicated issue of financial aid and send a clear message.
âIt sends a signal to students, especially low-income students, that they should go to college, that the people of the state want them to go to college,â Harris said. “It sets higher expectations, which in my opinion is a good thing.”
The clear message of Bucky’s Promise is what drew student Maayan Montoute to UW-Madison. Montoute is a 2019 Milwaukee Public Schools graduate who benefits from the Free Tuition Program. UW-Madison also covers its housing costs.
âThe program has helped me a lot, even before the pandemic and even more so last year,â says Montoute. âBecause a lot of students couldn’t find jobs and they still had to pay their bills, their tuition fees and things like that. So not having to worry about that extra cost helped me focus on my studies and manage my personal affairs. life with everything that was going on at the time. “
Montoute says some of his high school friends who attend other colleges have changed schools or dropped out for financial reasons. She believes extending the free tuition program to schools like UW-Milwaukee would help other students.
“A lot of people of my generation, it doesn’t really feel like [college] worth it than before, especially when nothing is guaranteed at the end, âsays Montoute. “Why do I want to take a chance on spending all this money when I don’t know if I’m gonna get anything in the end?”
Even though Bucky’s Promise expansion was not included in the state budget, there is a growing momentum for free college programs.
President Joe Biden wants to do nationwide free community college. Biden also proposed increasing the federal Pell grant and directing more funds to colleges that serve a large portion of students of color.
In Wisconsin, Representative Shankland said she plans to push for college accessibility measures in the next legislative session.
“I think we need to reassess our priorities and understand that while employers talk about a labor shortage, our higher education institutions are critical to meeting our workforce needs. and economic development, and we need to invest in those institutions, âShankland said.