The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents discussed strategies to increase enrollment opportunities for low-income students Thursday morning.

Primary topics of discussion were the trends of low-income student enrollment within the UW System and the financial aid provided to these students.

"For generations of Wisconsinites, the UW has been their best option to a brighter future," UW System President Kevin Reilly said. "Today, however, many of our fellow citizens do doubt their ability to afford a UW education for themselves and their children."

Reilly pointed to the inability of low-income students to find sufficient financial aid in the form of grants or low-interest loans, as well as low-income families not considering college a viable option due to financial constraints, as major problems facing the UW System.

"It's time for us to get back to the tradition of thinking big," Reilly said with regard to how the regents should go about improving the financial-aid system.

Thursday's meeting was framed around a discussion and no action was taken.

The board was presented with statistical information by Interim Associate Vice President of the Office of Policy Analysis and Research Sharon Wilhelm and Associate Vice President of Budget and Planning Freda Harris.

The presentation highlighted UW freshmen's family incomes, low-income enrollment trends and tuition fee and scholarship trends.

"Data shows that students from the lowest-income families are less likely to enroll in the UW and thus benefit from a bachelor's degree," Wilhelm said. "We find that college participation is lagging for low-income students, and, furthermore, has been declining over the years."

Student Regent Chris Semenas requested information regarding how many low-income students stay enrolled in the UW System after their first year.

"We can have students come for their freshman year, but their sophomore, junior and senior years are very important to get their degrees and provide income and revenue to our state," Semenas said. "That's not going to happen until we have fair tuition models and we have fair financial aid."

Wilhelm also highlighted the growing gap between the average undergraduate cost of attending UW and the average amount of money being provided to students through need-based grants. She reported the average student borrowing has increased $963 between the 2001-02 school year and the 2004-05 school year.

Harris presented possible models to address these trends, including a "pledge" model in which high school students would sign an agreement with UW to fulfill certain academic requirements to receive tuition and monetary aid from the UW System.

She also suggested the possibility of increasing tuition to help fund financial-aid programs. But she cautioned such a program might inadvertently deter low-income students because of the "sticker shock" caused by a raise in tuition.

"A tuition-funded financial-aid program would need to be partnered with an aggressive information campaign to inform low-income students that college is possible," Harris said.

Possibilities for tuition-funded financial aid included tuition based on students' abilities to pay, and a nonresident tuition rollback plan.

While this meeting was only a preliminary discussion, Reilly expressed his belief that the board will be able to effectively address this issue.

"I know that, together, we can make the dream of a university degree a reality for all Wisconsin residents who want to earn one — and who want to work to earn one — regardless of wealth," he said.