UW-Madison officials say the university will cover tuition and fee costs for Wisconsin students from families with incomes below the state median, a move they say shows all state residents that an education at the state’s flagship campus is within reach.
The plan, dubbed “Bucky’s Tuition Promise,” was unveiled at a University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents meeting Thursday. It will begin in the fall for incoming freshman and transfer students.
It pledges to cover four year’s tuition and certain fees for all in-state students who are accepted to the university and come from families with a yearly household income of $56,000 or less. University officials say that amount is roughly the median family income in Wisconsin.
UW-Madison officials stressed the plan will not trigger financial aid reductions elsewhere and is not funded with taxpayer dollars.
Rather, they said the anticipated cost — about $3 million a year when fully phased in — will be paid by private donations and other revenue sources such as licensing royalties.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, announcing the plan to Regents on Thursday, said some low- and lower-middle-income families in Wisconsin are unsure if they can afford to send their children to UW-Madison. The university wants to send a message that contradicts the notion that a high-quality university education is unaffordable, she said.
“The idea here is to simplify financial aid messages to people around the state,” Blank said.
The eligibility criteria is limited to one line from the federal income tax return: adjusted gross income. If that amount on a family’s return is $56,000 or less, the family qualifies.
UW-Madison officials said the plan will keep the university competitive with some other Big Ten schools with similar programs. Derek Kindle, director of the UW–Madison Office of Student Financial Aid, said six of the 14 Big Ten schools already have such programs in place.
Blank credited the university’s financial aid office for crafting the plan and pitching it to university leaders. It’s expected to aid at least 800 students in each new incoming class of freshmen and transfer students.
The plan is structured as a last-dollar award, meaning it will fill the gap between any other scholarships or grants and the full cost of tuition and segregated fees, Kindle said. Segregated fees are paid by all students, including for student union access, health services, recreation and other purposes.
Other expenses such as housing and food won’t be covered by the plan, though university officials said other types of financial aid might do that.
The university’s existing financial aid program fully covers tuition and segregated fees for nearly 70 percent of students from families below the $56,000 income threshold, Kindle said. He said the new plan provides funding for the remaining 30 percent of such students who have financial gaps to fill.
Unlike similar programs at other schools, the UW-Madison plan uses only income as the qualifier, not assets. Kindle said that could be critical in an agricultural state such as Wisconsin, where many farm families have high reported assets but low incomes.
Federal financial aid programs take family assets into account when determining the amount of aid for which a student qualifies.
Blank, speaking to reporters after the Regents meeting, said the program could be a particular boon to rural parts of Wisconsin where incomes, broadly speaking, have not kept pace with large metro areas.
“It is disproportionately people in smaller towns and rural parts of the state that are going to benefit from this, because that is where incomes are somewhat lower,” Blank said.