Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced her plan to give free tuition to first-generation transfer students who spend two years at one of the University of Wisconsin’s two-year campuses or some technical colleges.
Blank said starting at a two-year school is necessary for some students to access higher education and she wants to provide them the opportunity to “make the leap” to a four-year education at UW.
“Accessibility and affordability is important in any major public university, no more so than in Wisconsin, where we have a substantial number of relatively low-income populations, both in rural and urban areas of our state,” Blank said.
The proposal would guarantee tuition for the first year and for those who still qualify for the second year. The total cost of tuition for two years for those students is currently $10,488.
The university would prioritize these students with any new investment dollars from the state, Blank said. UW would cover their tuition for the first year and continue to provide financial aid for those who qualify under the Badger First-Generation Transfer Promise program.
This program guarantees admission to UW System schools to those who get a certain GPA at any two year UW Colleges campus and some technical colleges.
Blank is also looking to update the transfer contract, upping the minimum GPA requirement for guaranteed admissions UW from a 2.8 to 3.2.
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But Blank said the plan is contingent on “sufficient new investment” to the UW System in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 state budget proposal, which he will announce next week. The last state budget cut $250 million over two years.
Walker has said he’ll tie any new funding to the UW System to performance.
But some in the Legislature are cautious of Blank’s plan and would like to see more detail. State Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said in a statement considering the plan wasn’t in the UW System’s original budget request, he will evaluate the plan “in the context of the entire budget.”
The UW System requested $42.5 million over the next two years.
State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said in a statement the new GPA requirement might be a barrier for some potential students. Nygren is a co-chair of the legislature’s finance committee, which puts finishing touches on the governor’s budget proposal before it goes to the full Legislature for approval.
“We need to ensure that changes to transfer requirements don’t limit prospective students’ access to higher education,” Nygren said.
UW saw an 8 percent increase in applications compared to last year and is set to welcome its largest freshman class ever, Blank said. She said this increase largely came from out-of-state students using Common Application, which university of Wisconsin switched to last year.
Though she lauded the university’s recent accomplishments in high retention and graduation rates and improved career services, Blank said the state Legislature needs to address UW’s significant financial issues “if we are going to retain our top ranking.”
UW recently lost its National Science Foundation ranking as one of the top five research universities that spend the most money on research for the first time since 1972, which Blank linked to budget cuts.
“I’m very encouraged by the things that I’m hearing from the governor and the legislators in terms of reinvesting in the whole UW System, and I’m hopeful that we can all work together to change some of these worrisome trends,” Blank said.
Blank said the need for reinvestment is “critical” because of lagging growth in research and revenues.
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Though the university’s research expenditures have grown by about 2 percent annually from 2005 to 2015, the remaining top 25 institutions grew by 4 percent, according to data from a NSF Higher Education Research and Development survey. Blank said this disparity shows why UW is dropping in its rank.
“We’re all growing, but they’ve been growing faster than us, and it’s not a surprise that we fell from number two to number four and now number six in the rankings,” Blank said.
Tight budgets mean positions either remain unfilled or are replaced by more junior faculty members.
“While we’ve been successful at retaining many faculty, we have lost a number of really great people,” Blank said.
Blank’s reinvestment priorities include building faculty strength in areas of growing student demand, where scientific demand is high. She also said the university needs to continue enhancing education quality with new opportunities outside the classroom on an inclusive, diverse campus. The third component was expanding access and affordability, as outlined in the first-generation transfer promise.
“This is the sort of thing that we can do when our revenues are growing at the same rate as our colleagues, when we can reinvest, when we can work in partnership with the state,” Blank said. “I very much hope that we will have that opportunity.”