While any scholarship is better than none, one legislator’s proposition on how to dole out cash to high school seniors has its ups and downs.
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, proposed new legislation to make merit scholarships more desirable to top students in the state, but critics question how effective the changes would be.
The state awards the Academic Excellence Scholarship to the highest-ranked high school seniors who stay in state for college, Stroebel said.
Right now, the scholarship only covers about a quarter of the cost of tuition, Stroebel said. The new bill would double the cash award from a quarter to half the cost of tuition, about $5,500 per year, Stroebel said.
Scholarship recipients would also receive a tax credit for the other half of their tuition, to be received after completion of college within four years, if they choose to live and work in Wisconsin post-graduation, Stroebel said.
Stroebel said the bill will retain top students by making the Academic Excellence Scholarship more appealing.
“We’d be able to say to the best and brightest [students] that you can go to school in the state of Wisconsin … without any cost to you,” Stroebel said. “That, I believe, will be an incentive that’s going to move more people to stay in Wisconsin to go to school, as well as live and work.”
To increase scholarship awards the bill would cut the number of recipients in half, from 900 to 450 students, Stroebel said.
But Drew Anderson, a researcher at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, said even though the bill would make the scholarship more appealing, it’s still taking the scholarship away from people who would have accepted it.
“For there to be an impact, you have to weigh the increased attraction of offering larger scholarships with the decreased help you’re giving to people who are currently accepting the scholarships,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the new proposal might not be any better for the economy than the current program because of the negative consequence of decreased recipients.
Stroebel said he would prefer to keep the recipient pool at 900 and increase scholarship amounts for all, but the bill is not currently written to do so. Stroebel said he thinks the lesser of two evils is to decrease the number of scholarships to make the program effective.
Stroebel said when the scholarship was first created in the early 1990s, its intent was to provide a full ride to students of high academic achievement. Stroebel said the system has been frozen in time and needs to be updated to reflect current college costs.
The problem with the scholarship system is the award is too small to sway top students to stay in Wisconsin, rendering the program ineffective, Stroebel said.
“It’s not doing the job it’s intended to do,” Stroebel said. “It’s not keeping the best and the brightest.”
Stroebel said right now, more than 90 percent of national merit scholars go to out-of-state schools. Stroebel said Wisconsin is losing students who could boost the state’s economy by becoming entrepreneurs, business owners and leaders.
Anderson said even though he agrees it’s important to keep top students in state to enhance economic development, the bill poses a number of other issues.
For example, few students will be able to make enough to reap the entire tax credit benefit within the first five years out of college, Anderson said.
In order to gain back the other half of their tuition in tax credits, students would have to be making $71,000 a year right out of college, which is rare, Anderson said. Other students might not graduate in four years and would not get the tax credit at all, Anderson said.
Anderson said for the bill to be effective, the increase in cash award has to be enough to sway top students to make a different college choice, but research shows scholarships are often not a factor.
In a long-running survey of college freshmen from the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California-Los Angeles, the highest deciding factor in choosing a college was the college’s reputation, not scholarship funds, according to a statement from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
Anderson said he thinks one of the best ways to attract students to stay in state would be to make Wisconsin’s schools better by funding higher education.
“If you’re thinking about broadly the topic of keeping the best and brightest in Wisconsin, one way to do that is to have the best possible university system by directly funding the system,” Anderson said.
Stroebel said he has high hopes for his bill because the issue of keeping top students in the state is too important to ignore.
Right now the bill has bipartisan support with Sen. Mark Miller, D-Madison, as a co-sponsor. If passed, the bill would take effect in the 2016-17 school year.