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BRYAN FAUST/Herald Photo

University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly unveiled a new growth agenda for the UW System at the Board of Regents meeting Thursday.

Reilly also addressed Gov. Jim Doyle's proposed Wisconsin Covenant program, which would provide financial aid to qualified in-state students seeking admission to a UW System school.

Doyle's proposal has spurred debate over its cost-efficiency and practicality since its introduction at the State of the State address Jan. 17.

"If we think and act as big as this state's heart, we can find a way to fashion a Covenant program that will foster aspiration and success among our young people," Reilly said.

Reilly's speech, and a subsequent presentation given by UW System Associate Vice President of Policy Analysis and Research Sharon Wilhelm, emphasized an objective to enroll a greater number of undergraduate students from low-income families.

"The Wisconsin Covenant program could help reduce this disparity by targeting seventh and eighth grade students below a certain income threshold," Wilhelm said. "[This program would] encourage them to sign a pledge that they will meet academic and citizenship requirements."

Wilhelm presented data showing how students from lower-income families were less likely than those from higher-income families to enroll at UW. She also noted that the average tuition and fees for resident undergraduates has increased more rapidly than the average state need-based grant.

Different methods of determining eligibility for the program were discussed, including a family income cutoff and making this program available to students participating in the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

According to Freda Harris, UW System associate vice president for budget and planning, if the state begins to save $7 million per year from 2007 to 2012, Wisconsin will have enough funding to put current qualifying eighth graders through the Covenant Program.

"I believe we are at a defining moment in the evolution of the UW," Reilly said. "We must grow and nurture this wonderful asset we know as the University of Wisconsin System so that the state, its people and the quality of life in the state are enhanced for the 21st century."

Regent Thomas Loftus suggested declining admission rates of lower-income students might actually be caused by more stringent enrollment practices within the UW System, rather than increasing costs.

"[Higher-income students] have many more advantages because of the relative wealth of their families, and they are able to be given the advantage that our modern admission standards require," Loftus said. "Have we seen a falling off of students from lower-income families as admission standards have gone up?"

Wilhelm addressed this question by saying the program is designed to encourage students to prepare for college early in their academic career, as well as assisting with financial issues.

Reilly also expressed a desire to further develop the academic strengths of each UW campus, so every campus can better serve its respective student bodies.

Each campus must find its own "market niche," he continued, so as to contribute to the "mosaic that is the UW System."

This plan would include increasing the research capacity at UW-Milwaukee, assisting UW-Green Bay with its student body expansion plan and supporting the biomedical and biopharmaceutical programs at UW-Madison.

Reilly called upon the state Legislature for assistance in achieving the objectives he outlined.

"Of course, these goals do require a reinvestment from the state, and we are anxious to join with our state government partners in an agenda that will provide a substantial return on that investment," Reilly said.