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For first time, less than half of UW-Madison's freshman class hails from Wisconsin
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For first time, less than half of UW-Madison's freshman class hails from Wisconsin

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UW-Madison campus

For likely the first time in UW-Madison history, less than half of the freshman class hails from Wisconsin.

At the same time, the class includes the most in-state students of any freshman class since 2001. And while the balance has shifted, UW-Madison officials say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With their higher tuition, out-of-state students help fund many of the university’s priorities.

“This is pretty much to be expected — a downstream effect of years of state budget cuts and also having to keep pace with peer universities,” said Thomas Harnisch, a UW-Madison alumnus who is vice president of government relations for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, which represents university leaders across the country including the University of Wisconsin System. “Institutions are looking for resources. One of the ways to fill that gap is through out-of-state students.”

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This year’s incoming class includes 3,859 Wisconsin students, or 46% of the students entering as freshman this fall.

Nearly the same number of out-of-state and international students enrolled as did in-state students — 3,828, or 45% of the class. That’s a 37% increase from last year and an 88% increase since 2015 when the UW Board of Regents paved the way for Wisconsin’s flagship school to enroll more out-of-state students by lifting a cap on how many nonresidents UW-Madison could enroll.

While most other flagship universities are pursuing a similar strategy in bringing students from across the country to their campuses, UW-Madison ranks toward the top among public Big Ten schools in its share of out-of-state students, just behind the University of Michigan, according to a Wisconsin State Journal analysis of the most recent federal education data.

Enrolling more out-of-state students has helped UW-Madison in many ways.

Nonresident students diversify the campus, bringing new perspectives and life experiences. They help pay for scholarship programs that reduce the cost of college for low-income Wisconsin students and offset revenue losses from the in-state undergraduate tuition freeze that is now in its ninth year. They fill seats in a state with a declining number of high school students going off to college. And some of them stay in the state after graduating.

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“The increase we’ve had in out-of-state students has helped us fund all of this,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in an interview this week. “It’s helped us not only fund the scholarships and the access; it’s helped us retain and recruit top faculty, it’s helped us hire more advisers. … Look at the quality of this university and how its educational outcomes have gone up over the last five to 10 years.”

Systemwide strategy?

Before the 2015 policy change, no more than 27.5% of UW-Madison students could come from outside the state.

Now, UW-Madison is expected to enroll 3,600 in-state freshman each year. It also must meet a 5,200-student target that includes in-state students, transfer students and those from Minnesota who receive reduced tuition through a reciprocity agreement.

With preliminary numbers showing UW-Madison enrolled 5,614 students among the three groups, Blank said “we’ve blown those numbers out of the water.”

UW-Madison officials stress that enrolling more out-of-state students doesn’t mean those students are taking spots that would have otherwise gone to in-state students.

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If that were the case, Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, would be worried. But with in-state enrollment holding relatively steady over the past two decades, he said he didn’t see anything wrong with UW-Madison capitalizing on the demand.

“The one thing Madison can do that (other UW campuses) can’t is they can open up the spigot when it comes to out-of-state students,” he said. “The real question is what’s going to happen to the other 12 campuses? There won’t be enough applicants to fill those schools.”

Projections show a 10% drop in the number of Wisconsin high school graduates from 2019 to 2037, according to a recent report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

In 2010, 4.9% of the state’s high school students went to UW-Madison, Blank said. This past year, it’s 5.8%, meaning the university is serving more of the state’s students even as the overall pool grows smaller.

Interim System President Tommy Thompson wasn’t available for an interview this week but he said in a statement that it’s important to balance enrollment of students at UW-Madison and the rest of the System. A spokesperson said there was no additional detail available on what the right balance should be among the campuses.

Workforce needs

Like Roth, Thompson expressed little concern for the near-equal share of UW-Madison freshmen coming from Wisconsin and outside state borders.

Tommy Thompson


“Serving as a magnet for out-of-state talent is exactly what our flagship university should be doing, and I won’t apologize for that,” he said. “We welcome these students to help grow Wisconsin and address our state’s most pressing employment needs.”

In the most recent year for which data is available, about 23% of out-of-state students were living in Wisconsin a year after graduation, Blank said. That’s higher than in past years.

“That essentially says that you are adding some 1,500 students to the workforce, really highly skilled, highly talented students,” Blank said. “There is no other institution anywhere in the state that begins to bring in that number.”

Admissions decisions

Unlike in past years, when in-state students were admitted at higher rate than those from out of state, the difference narrowed this year: 64.6% of in-state student applicants were accepted — the lowest rate in at least a decade — and 64.1% of out-of-state applicants were accepted, the highest rate since at least 2012.

Crafting this year’s freshman class was challenging, Provost John Karl Scholz told reporters on a call late last month.

The pandemic made enrollment projections more uncertain. Many universities, including UW-Madison, were flooded with more applications than they normally receive. And admissions officers were in some cases operating without test scores, one of several indicators they previously looked at to assess college readiness.

Altogether, UW-Madison enrolled 800 more students than expected, Blank said. More of that increase came from out of state.

With out-of-state students paying nearly four times what in-state students are charged, UW-Madison puts some of that money toward Bucky’s Tuition Promise, a full-tuition scholarship for in-state students whose families make less than $60,000 annually. The program, now in its fourth year, serves about one in every five Wisconsin freshmen.

Growing out-of-state enrollment has also helped UW-Madison double its other institutional financial aid since 2015, said Matt Mayrl, Blank’s chief of staff. The money helps support Wisconsin students who may not be eligible for Bucky’s Tuition Promise but still in need of some financial assistance.

“I don’t know what else I could be doing to serve Wisconsin better,” Blank said.


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