Gov. Jim Doyle's program promoting college attendance may do little for those who need the most help without more tuition aid, according to a study released Wednesday.

The Wisconsin Covenant program should include state-funded scholarships for low-income students to improve their college attendance and completion, according to the study by UW-Madison researchers.

Doyle proposed the covenant in 2006, and lawmakers created an office to run the program in the current budget. Eighth-graders who sign a pledge to get good grades during high school and meet service, academic and behavior requirements are guaranteed admission to a Wisconsin college, though not necessarily their top choices.

Covenant scholars may qualify for grants from two new private sources, but otherwise they receive only state and federal financial aid that's available to all students.

Researcher Beth Stransky acknowledged adding state money to the program would be difficult given Wisconsin's $5.4 billion budget deficit and targeting low-income students might undercut the program's popular support. But she said helping more students attend college is a sound investment that will pay off in the long-run.

The state should consider income guidelines similar to the Indiana's 21st Century Scholars program, where students from a family of four with incomes of less than $38,000 are eligible for four-year scholarships, Stransky said. The scholarships should cover at least the cost of tuition, fees and books, she said.

"We think it would lead to more kids going to college by tapping a group that isn't accessing college at the level we feel is possible," Stransky said. "A state investment of dollars would really give the covenant meat. It would make it more than just a symbolic action."

Doyle's administration was reviewing the study. A spokeswoman said the governor's focus has been on making college affordable through separate state and private aid programs, not the Wisconsin Covenant itself.

The study, by Stransky and colleague Annalee Good, was released by the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, a UW-Madison think tank.

Researchers praised the covenant for providing a road map to college for middle school students. Its workshops on college preparation, assistance in applying for financial aid and visits to college campuses could boost academic success, the authors said.

But because the program does not target students who need the most help "it may end up only serving those students who were already college-bound," the study said. That in turn means the program might not reduce gaps in enrollment rates among economic and racial groups, the price of college or student dependence on loans, it said.

The study said Wisconsin should not model its plan after Georgia's HOPE program, where scholarships are awarded solely based on merit and not aimed at the neediest students.

More than 35,000 students have signed the covenant since it started in 2007. The first class of Wisconsin Covenant scholars will attend college in the fall of 2011.

Instead of attaching money to theprogram, the governor has sought to increase funding for existing financial aid programs for low-income students such as Wisconsin Higher Education Grants.

Funding for that program increased in the most recent budget, and Doyle's administration has said aid spending should increase by 20 percent in each two-year budget until 2015.

Doyle also helped create the Wisconsin Covenant Foundation, which was started with a $40 million donation from the Madison-based Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corp. The foundation will raise money and distribute grants to covenant scholars "who demonstrate financial need," but income guidelines have not been announced.

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