Free tuition proposed for 1st-generation transfers

By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press writer

University of Wisconsin-Madison officials want to provide at least a year of free tuition to two-year transfer students who would be the first in their family to get a degree if legislators give them enough money in the upcoming state budget, the school’s chancellor told UW System leaders earlier this month.

The proposal, dubbed the Badger Promise, calls for changing contracts that guarantee UW-Madison admission for students who transfer in from the system’s 14 two-year colleges and large technical schools.

The new contracts will provide clearer information about the classes required to get into the Madison campus.

They also would require students to maintain at least a 3.2 grade point average rather than the current 2.8 minimum.

First-generation students who complete the contracts would receive scholarships and grants to cover their first year of tuition at UW-Madison.

Students eligible for federal Pell grants in their second year also would get free tuition, Chancellor Rebecca Blank told regents during a meeting on the flagship campus.

Blank said the program would spur first-generation students to greater things, noting such students often come from low-income families, lack family advisement on college matters and drop out of school at higher rates.

The number of first-generation undergraduates at UW-Madison has dropped from 6,439 in 2009 to 5,440 in 2015.

“It’s encouragement and motivation for a group of students that don’t have that encouragement coming to them from other people,” Blank said. “These are the students whom the state has to help the most.”

UW officials estimate the proposal would cost about $1.5 million annually in scholarships. They didn’t have estimates on how many students might participate.

The free tuition segment of the deal hinges largely on how much state aid legislators give UW-Madison in the upcoming 2017-19 state budget, Blank told the regents.

The last two state budgets have frozen in-state undergraduate tuition and the 205-17 spending plan slashed $250 million from the system. The regents have asked for $42.5 million in new funding in the 2017-19 budget.

Gov. Scott Walker plans to unveil his version of the new budget this week. He has said the spending plan will include new funding for the system contingent on meeting as-of-yet undisclosed performance standards as well as a tuition cut.

He hasn’t said how deep the cut might be but he plans to backfill the lost revenue with state aid.

Asked about his support for Badger Promise’s free tuition, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said only that the governor will review the proposal.

Republican lawmakers were skeptical of the plan.

Rep. John Nygren of Marinette, who co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, said he wanted to review the details of the new contracts to make sure they don’t limit student access before he can support the plan.

Rep. Dave Murphy of Greenville, chairman of the Assembly’s universities committee, said in a statement he wants to get a better understanding of how changing the GPA standards to 3.2 will affect access. He also said other colleges have implemented similar promise programs with private donations.

Regent Michael Grebe, a Walker appointee, told Blank he was concerned that the free tuition offer might funnel two-year students to UW-Madison at the expense of the system’s other four-year schools. Blank replied that increasing the GPA requirement to 3.2 would mean many students won’t try to move to Madison.