Issues regarding financial aid, financial relief and the student loan debt crisis have been at the forefront of national, local and university conversations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These have sparked concern about systemic inequities — relating to income and economic background — affecting students’ ability to pay for college and provoking UW-Madison students’ opinions.
During the 2018-19 school year, 58.4% of undergraduates and 67.8% of graduate students received some form of financial aid from the university, according to the most recent university report. 32.5% of undergraduate students received need-based aid.
“Students generally express the concern of affording to attend UW-Madison while also making the most of the financial aid they receive,” said Karla Weber, the communications manager in the Office of Student Financial Aid, emphasizing that when financial aid offers are released, many students express worry about how they will cover expenses that are not covered by the aid.
Over 11,000 UW undergraduates demonstrated financial need during the 2018-2019 academic year.
Financial aid programs at UW-Madison vary. Students can receive scholarships and grants, take out loans — from government and private sources — or work, either in student jobs or through federal work-study. At UW specifically, the most common form of financial aid is scholarships, followed by loans, work and then grants.
About $518 million dollars in financial aid were distributed to students during the 2018-2019 school year with most of the aid coming from federal and institutional resources.
Weber maintains that UW is committed to making college accessible to all students, “but especially for Wisconsin students,” in ensuring that it is affordable for their families.
The university has a number of dedicated programs intended to serve Wisconsinites from lower-income backgrounds as well as first-generation college students.
“Because my family is considered low-income and I am not getting any assistance from them with paying for college, I was put into UW-Madison’s FASTrack program,” said Megan Williamson, a first-generation college student.
The FASTrack program is intended for Wisconsin residents from low-income households to assist them in paying for college through a combination of financial aid options.
Williamson received seven grants to help cover the majority of the cost for her first year of college and will continue to receive aid, as the program is committed to assisting participants for four consecutive years.
“It has been such a relief not having to worry about how I would be able to afford going here,” emphasized Williamson. “And knowing that the FASTrack program is committed to helping support me financially for eight semesters is just amazing.”
In 2019, 7,671 UW students received $75.2 million in need-based financial aid. The majority of said aid was from institutional and federally funded programs.
In 2020-21, the Bucky’s Tuition Promise program awarded the largest cohort of individuals yet — 923 new in-state students — free undergraduate tuition. This program serves Wisconsin students whose family’s adjusted gross income is less than $60,000, providing first-year students and incoming transfer students with free undergraduate tuition and segregated fees for eight consecutive semesters and four consecutive semesters, respectively.
First-year student Alexia is one of many recipients of Bucky’s Tuition Promise. Her parents are divorced and the university considered only her mother’s income and not her father’s — who makes a substantial living through his small-business — when deciding her financial aid package.
“I feel like I’m stealing money from kids that need it way more than I do,” said Alexia. “But I am not going to turn it [financial aid] down.”
Although the cost of attendance at UW-Madison varies from student to student based on their financial aid packages, the prices remain steep, with tuition increasing every year as many students and their families continue to struggle to pay for college and out-of-state and international students paying almost four times as much as in-state students.
During the 2018-19 academic year, student loans made up 41% of the financial aid awarded to UW students, highlighting the continuous struggle faced by students when paying for college.
Kelsey Schneider, a first-year and in-state student, emphasized that it is frustrating to not qualify for Bucky’s Tuition Promise but to also not be able to “rack up $20k+/year” for tuition and other fees.
“I understand the purpose and [am] happy for the people that receive it, but I think the program misses a fairly large amount of people who also need it,” continued Schneider.
Middle-class students that do not qualify for significant institutional, state or federal financial aid but still struggle to pay out of pocket are often left to take out loans and to search for scholarships.
“The ratio of financial need-based to academic-based scholarships is unacceptable,” said first-year student Paige Bester.
At UW-Madison, students must apply for or match with specific scholarships. Despite scholarships being the most common form of financial aid at UW, merit-based scholarships remain scarce. The College of Letters and Science — the largest school on campus — offers just 125 scholarships to the 15,000+ continuing students, yearly.
“UW-Madison students actually borrow less than both national and Wisconsin averages and are better at repaying those loans,” said Weber. “Through our financial aid offerings, we continue to work towards reducing our students’ debt burden after they graduate.”
Approximately 45% of graduating undergraduate students during the 2018-19 academic year had student loan debt, averaging $27,147. The Federal Reserve estimates that there is $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, nationally.
Ultimately, Weber emphasized that the Financial Aid Office remains committed and available to students — even after graduation — to assist in issues they may have concerning their student loan debt and overall financial wellness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored a number of systemic inequities affecting UW-Madison students, including financial ones.
Last month, students began to receive COVID-19 emergency relief. The $9.89 million allocated from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II is intended to help students experiencing financial hardship and insecurity amidst the pandemic. Students can apply for the aid through their MyUW StudentCenter, although some students have been automatically selected for $1,000 emergency grants as a result of their eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant.
“The COVID-19 relief fund was kind of like an added bonus for me,” said Williamson.
Most of Williamson’s tuition is covered through her financial aid package, so she was able to use the money for other expenses, such as buying a winter jacket and groceries as well as other “everyday college expenses.”
As of March 18, the university has allocated the entirety of their allotment provided by HEERF II.
Since mid-February, 9,086 students — about 20% of the student population — have received HEERF II funding as of March 23, according to UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone. She also said that 100% of undergraduates demonstrating the highest financial need received assistance.
HEERF III is on its way to college campuses, but it is unclear how much or when this relief will be distributed.
Many students hope that the university will provide more financial relief given the circumstances of COVID-19.
Nearly 91% of the 2,935 students that participated in the Spring 2021 Associated Students of Madison election were in favor of establishing a COVID-19 Student Relief Fund, which the university maintains that they are unable to implement.
Financial aid and relief remain critical in thousands of UW-Madison students’ ability to pay for their education, but continue to highlight the systemic inequities relating to income that make paying for college increasingly difficult.