A bill to ban race-based consideration in Wisconsin college financial aid programs could potentially overhaul accessibility to higher education for minority students.
The Republican-backed bill was passed 62-35 along party lines by the Assembly in November and now sits in the Senate. If passed, the bill would ban public college admissions, publicly funded financial aid programs and the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board from considering factors like race, gender and sexual orientation for financial aid programs.
The proposal received criticism from the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Wisconsin Education Association Council and PROFS, a nonprofit advocacy group for the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty.
Financial aid programs, the requirements for technical college grants and UW System recruitment and retention programs would be required to focus on all low-income students, regardless of minority status, under the bill.
The bill came after the U.S. Supreme Court restricted the use of race in college admissions decisions and the UW Board of Regents’ agreement to cut DEI efforts in exchange for construction and employee compensation funding.
Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, said during a hearing the bill would alter the apportionment of higher education financial aid in pursuit of “a more noble effort of trying to be race-neutral, color-blind and focusing more on individual merit or achievement.”
But PROFS lobbyist Jack O’Meara told The Daily Cardinal the bill would undermine the university’s capacity to promote diversity. He stressed that “a diverse university is essential both for the future of young people and for our state’s economic competitiveness.”
“In [the faculty’s] discussions with legislators, we have talked about how Wisconsin has a specific history of discrimination, much like other states. Now is not the time to pretend that history doesn’t exist,” O’Meara said.
Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, a Wisconsin teacher and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, told the Cardinal shifting the accessibility of higher education would also have far-reaching impacts on Wisconsin’s K-12 education system.
“Wisconsin public school students need and deserve to have a diverse representation of teachers and education support professionals,” Wirtz-Olsen said. “A highly qualified education workforce that reflects a student’s family and community inspires and encourages.”
When asked how UW-Madison may reshape its policies around this new bill, O’Meara said PROFS is confident UW-Madison will act in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court decisions “while continuing to support diversity.”
Students tend to benefit from having teachers who look like them, especially non-white students who are more likely to be affected by disadvantages like poverty and racism and by positive influences like high-quality schools and role models, O’Meara said.
UW System data shows students of color are more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate than their white peers. High costs and a lack of financial aid are part of the problem, according to the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).
Minority representation in the education system is also disproportionately slim.
Although one-third of Wisconsin public school students in the 2021-22 school year were students of color, 94% of licensed teachers are white, just over 2% are Hispanic and 1.8% are Black, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.
WEAC said specific incentives for increasing minority representation like the Minority Teacher Loan Program will be altered by the bill at a time when minority teaching force growth is slow and attrition rates are high.
Gov. Tony Evers has indicated he will veto the bill if it passes the Legislature.
Alex Tan is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @dxvilsavocado.