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UW-Madison seeks to increase the number of out-of-state students.

UW-Madison wants to lift the cap on the number of students from outside of Wisconsin who can enroll at the university, though officials said Thursday they will make sure the state’s flagship campus stays accessible to its residents.

One state higher education expert questioned the plan, however, calling it a ploy to boost tuition revenue from wealthy out-of-state and international students, and saying it threatens UW-Madison’s mission to educate the people of Wisconsin.

No more than 27.5 percent of students at any University of Wisconsin System campus can come from outside the state under current policy.

UW-Madison officials will ask the System’s Board of Regents at its meeting next week for a waiver from that rule for the next four years. Chancellor Rebecca Blank estimated the change could result in 200-300 more students from outside of Wisconsin enrolling at UW-Madison.

Blank and UW System President Ray Cross stressed those students would not take positions at the university that would have otherwise gone to residents.

At least 3,500 students in UW-Madison’s class of incoming freshmen must come from within Wisconsin — a rule put in place when the university raised the cap on out-of-state students three years ago. That minimum would remain in effect under the new proposal.

Blank and Cross said the change will bring more skilled people into Wisconsin’s workforce from beyond its borders, and will be coupled with efforts to attract top in-state students who might otherwise leave for universities in other states.

The goal, Cross said, will be to “attract and retain Wisconsin’s best and brightest, and the best and brightest we can get from anywhere.

“We’re not trying to diminish the Wisconsin opportunity here,” Cross said.

“It’s a two-part plan: Doing a better job of attracting Wisconsin students, but also finding a way to attract and retain both of those groups — in-state and out-of-state (students).”

Noel Radomski, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said the change is aimed at bringing in more students who will pay higher non-resident tuition rates as the university copes with deep state budget cuts.

“There’s no financial incentive to increase the number of Wisconsin students attending the UW-Madison,” Radomski said.

Eliminating the cap will result in a UW-Madison where a greater share of students come from outside the state and outside the country, he said.

“Is that the Wisconsin Idea?” Radomski said. “It’s really sending the wrong message, and it’s going to have the wrong outcomes.”

Blank acknowledged the change will allow the university to increase tuition revenue, but she and Cross said that was not the reason why they pushed to eliminate the cap.

“This is something we should be doing in any case, regardless of where we are in budgets,” Blank said.

Instead, they said it is necessary because of shifts in Wisconsin’s demographics.

The state’s population of older workers and retirees are growing, while its number of high school graduates and college students is falling, according to materials the university submitted to the Regents.

Those younger workers will feel the squeeze as fewer of them must support state services for the growing older population, officials say, but UW-Madison can help by keeping top in-state students here and bringing in others from outside Wisconsin.

Cross and Blank said they will then work with businesses to connect students with Wisconsin employers before they graduate.

“Get them here, get them educated and keep them here,” Cross said.

Radomski questioned this argument, however, saying the non-resident and international students the university will attract tend to leave the state after they graduate at much higher rates than in-state students.

“There are plenty of students to recruit and admit and enroll here,” Radomski said. “That is a crutch they’re using to go after international students and to go after revenue.”

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.