A University of Wisconsin System proposal to fully fund tuition and fees for low-income students is unlikely to receive state funding in the upcoming biennial budget, according to recent comments from a top Republican.
The UW System requested $24.5 million in state funding last year for its “Wisconsin Tuition Promise,” a program that would ensure Wisconsin resident undergraduates whose annual household adjusted gross income is $62,000 or less can attend any UW institution without paying tuition or fees.
An estimated 8,000 low-income students would benefit from the Wisconsin Tuition Promise in its first four years, according to the UW System.
The Wisconsin Tuition Promise is a “last-dollar” support program, meaning it would cover the gap between other financial aid and the full cost of tuition and fees. Incoming freshmen would be covered under the program for four years, and transfer students would be covered for two years.
Gov. Tony Evers included the UW System’s full $24.5 million request in his 2023-25 biennial budget proposal released Wednesday, a move that drew praise from university leaders.
However, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) told The Daily Cardinal the program “should be much more of a private focus” following Evers’ budget address Wednesday.
“If the university wants to go out and raise private resources, I think that’s an excellent use of their fundraising prowess if they choose to,” Vos said. “I think it’s probably not something we’re going to be able to fund at the state level when we see so many folks struggling with paying their taxes and all of the other bills.”
The Wisconsin Tuition Promise is set to launch this fall, according to the UW System’s website. Although the UW System intended to raise $13.8 million in private funds to cover program expenses during the 2023-24 academic year, it planned to seek state funding to cover subsequent years, according to an August press release.
The UW System remains committed to funding the Wisconsin Tuition Promise's 2023 student cohort, spokesperson Mark Pitsch said in an email Friday.
"We want Wisconsin to win the war for talent and the [Wisconsin] Tuition Promise is one of the best ways to do it," UW System President Jay Rothman said in an email Friday. "Partnering with the Legislature on the structure of this program to make it a reality will be a priority, as we believe we share the common goal of addressing workforce challenges. However, our regional universities will need state support to provide these Tuition Promise opportunities for future students and families."
UW System officials said in August of last year they would move forward with the program regardless of whether it receives funding in the 2023-25 state budget, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It is unclear how the UW System will fund the program past the 2023-24 academic year without state funding.
Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) said Friday in an email statement to The Daily Cardinal that the Wisconsin Tuition Promise was "just one idea" among many in the budget. Marklein did not specify whether he would support or oppose it.
"We are looking at all our options and will consider all spending as a part of the full budget plan, not as one-off ideas," Marklein said.
Vos suggested the program replicate the funding model for Bucky’s Tuition Promise, the UW-Madison initiative that inspired the Wisconsin Tuition Promise.
Now in its fifth year of operation, Bucky’s Tuition Promise has fully funded tuition and segregated fees for nearly 5,000 students at UW-Madison, according to the university. Bucky’s Tuition Promise is funded entirely by private donors as well as money from other institutional resources, such as revenue from Bucky-branded merchandise.
UW-Madison Office of Student Financial Aid Director Helen Faith said the program was designed to be clear and simple for low-income Wisconsin families.
“When you think about going to college, we’re all paying for rent in some way, we’re all paying for food in some way already," Faith said. “The tuition is the number that tends to be most intimidating for families.”
The program is currently available to any incoming Wisconsin resident undergraduate student whose household adjusted gross income is $60,000 or less. That threshold will rise to $65,000 this fall, according to Faith.
Some Bucky’s Tuition Promise recipients will soon be eligible for Bucky’s Pell Pathway, which UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin announced at a UW Board of Regents meeting earlier this month. Set to begin this fall, the privately-funded program will cover the full cost of education — including housing, meals and books — for any student who qualifies for the federal Pell Grant.
Bucky’s Pell Pathway funding works in tandem with other scholarships, grants and work-study programs to cover students' full financial need while accounting for federal expected household contributions, according to Faith.
The first full cohort of Bucky’s Tuition Promise students graduated last spring. Students in the cohort graduated in similar amounts of time as students with higher incomes, which Faith hailed as a “success.”
Dayne Tallier, UW-Madison senior and Bucky’s Tuition Promise recipient, said the program was why he chose to attend UW-Madison. He originally hoped to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, California following his senior year of high school.
Tallier received Bucky’s Tuition Promise Plus, a precursor to Bucky’s Pell Pathway. He has received a reimbursement at the beginning of each semester to cover food, housing and additional college expenses.
Though Tallier still lives modestly under a fixed income, he said Bucky’s Tutition Promise has made his college experience “way less stressful.”
“I’ve been able to focus on my schoolwork and research, which has really been helpful,” he said.
Tallier plans to graduate UW-Madison this spring with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a Global Health certificate — and zero student loan debt.
“I’m graduating with a four-year degree from a really good school without having to pay a dime,” he said. “That’s been really nice for my future and looking at where I want to go next. I don’t have to feel rushed into something.”
Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:35 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 17 to clarify eligibility and financial aid processes behind the Bucky's Tuition Promise and Bucky's Pell Pathway programs. The story was updated again at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17 to include a statement from Sen. Howard Marklein and again at 8:19 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18 to include a response from UW System officials.
Tyler Katzenberger is the State News Editor at The Daily Cardinal. He has covered numerous protests and written state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @tk_kutz.