Wisconsin’s college dreams are at risk

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

As a member of the higher education community and a life-long learner, I have a passion for the transforming power of a good education. Strong educational systems level the playing field and give everyone a chance to succeed. Education for all is one of the founding ideas of the University of Wisconsin System, of which I am a proud member.

As a parent and an educator, I know that one of the most powerful gifts we can give our young people is an exceptional education from kindergarten through college and beyond. If we can continue to provide a great education to all children, we will equip them with the skills necessary to compete in this fast-changing, global market.

It is for these reasons that I am concerned about the recent news that the cost of a University of Wisconsin System education is out of reach for many of our state’s low-income families. Wisconsin, like many states, is at a critical juncture. We now face the question of how we are to keep a college education affordable for all.

The cost of sending a child to a state university such as U.W.-Whitewater now consumes 22 percent of the average family’s income in Wisconsin. For low-income families, it is 50 percent.

Falling state and federal aid have forced campus administrators to increase tuition to make up for the shortfall. Students on our campus tell me tuition costs are rising too quickly, and it is our low-income students who are hurt the most.

I believe we provide students with an excellent education at a reasonable cost. But for low-income families, any increase in tuition can take them out of the running. To compound matters, the amount of federal Pell Grant money has decreased. We recently received the results of a survey of freshmen and sophomores who did not return to U.W.-Whitewater in the fall. Two of the top five reasons given for leaving were that the students did not have enough money to continue or they transferred to a lower-cost institution.

U.W.-Whitewater has a long history of providing excellent support to first-generation, low-income and minority students. Federal funding helped build our successful Upward Bound and Talent Search, two of the five TRIO programs. The Bush Administration’s budget proposal calls for the elimination of these two vital services.

Gov. Jim Doyle recently announced the Wisconsin Covenant. This program would encourage low-income students to pledge to maintain good grades, stay out of trouble and participate in college prep courses. Once they’ve graduated from a Wisconsin high school, their reward would be additional money for college. I’ve worked in two states with similar programs. There is much to applaud in the Wisconsin Covenant, yet it will not affect students until the year 2012, and then it will help only those who meet the yet-to-be-determined qualifications.

I urge the state legislature, community and business leaders to begin serious discussions of how we are going to solve the growing educational gap between the state’s haves and have-nots. Also, I will ask our congressional delegation to fight hard to restore the funding for Upward Bound and Talent Search.

As U.W. System president Kevin Reilly recently said, "We need to do all that we can to put the University of Wisconsin within the reach of every state citizen."

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