High-performing students could receive scholarships worth $5,000 per year to attend Wisconsin’s public universities under a Republican bill backers said Tuesday could keep the state’s top young minds from going elsewhere.
But some are questioning the complex model lawmakers have devised to pay for the new scholarships, which would be funded by the proceeds from the sale of public land from one state agency to another.
The legislation would require the Department of Natural Resources to spend tens of millions of dollars to buy more than 70,000 acres owned by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands — much of which, according to a former head of the board, is land of little value that other prospective buyers have passed on.
The bill’s authors, Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, and Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, say the sale would generate $80 million, creating an endowment that permanently funds $5 million per year in merit-based scholarships. The program would provide aid to 1,000 in-state students at University of Wisconsin System institutions based on their standardized test scores and grade-point averages, regardless of their families’ financial need.
“We’re trying to give UW tools to keep the best and brightest here in the state,” August said.
UW System President Ray Cross and state Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, a member of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, voiced their support for the legislation at a news conference Tuesday morning.
Cross said UW is competing with public and private colleges beyond Wisconsin’s borders that give students “really attractive packages” of merit-based financial aid, and needs to counter those offers.
“We’re losing too many (students), and this is a way for us to attempt to keep them and retain them,” he said.
Aid could flow
Universities and lawmakers across the country have embraced merit-based financial aid programs in recent decades to encourage students to stay in-state for college, experts say. In other cases, the scholarship packages may be used to attract bright minds from elsewhere in a bid to boost an institution’s prestige and its position in national rankings.
The legislation proposed Tuesday is an example of the former, said Rosemaria Martinelli, a senior director at Huron Consulting Group who studies higher education.
“(UW is) losing so many of their top-tier students to other states and private institutions, and they want a chance to be in the mix,” Martinelli said.
The state already offers some merit-based financial aid through the Wisconsin Excellence Scholarship, which gives $2,170 to the top graduate in each high school. UW-Madison is raising money from donors to fund merit scholarships as one piece of its $3.2 billion fundraising campaign.
Rules for the new scholarship — which would cover about half of the $10,488 cost of tuition and fees this year at UW-Madison — would be written by the UW System Board of Regents.
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Critics, however, question whether the money spent on merit scholarships might be better used for need-based financial aid. Since students who score well on standardized tests and get good grades tend to come from affluent families, Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said funding for the proposed scholarships will “almost certainly” go to those who don’t have as much need for aid as their low-income peers.
Nass said low-income students already have financial aid programs available to them, and added middle-class families tend to “get short-changed” under current scholarship programs.
Money would come from DNR
The legislation introduced Tuesday would require the DNR to set aside $10 million per year for eight years from its stewardship program to purchase territory owned by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The board is charged in the state constitution with selling off millions of acres of land given to Wisconsin by the federal government; the 77,000 acres, most of which are in the northern part of the state, are the last of those parcels still under the board’s control.
The $80 million price tag lawmakers gave for the land is based on a 2005 assessment, said Jonathan Barry, the board’s executive secretary.
Tia Nelson, a former executive secretary who resigned in 2015, noted the board has already tried to sell much of that territory, but couldn’t find anyone willing to buy it.
While some of the land could be valuable for its timber, Nelson said, many parcels don’t have public access and could prove “burdensome and costly” for the DNR to manage. Nelson noted about 70,000 of the acres were granted to the state by the federal government under the Swamp Land Act of 1850.
“As the name suggests, it’s mostly swamp,” she said. “I question the value they’re attributing to that land.”
Barry said the board is required to have another assessment of the land before it can be sold.
He and a DNR spokesman declined to comment on the scholarship proposal.
The DNR stewardship program acquires land to expand outdoor recreation opportunities and protect environmentally sensitive areas.
GOP lawmakers have criticized the program for taking too much land off tax rolls and generating too much debt. In 2013, Walker and legislators required the DNR to sell 10,000 acres by mid-2017. The land was to lay outside boundaries of projects like state parks or forests.
In 2015, Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature reduced stewardship borrowing to $33.25 million annually from the previous level of $50 million per year.
State Journal reporter Steven Verburg contributed to this report.