UW System Free Tuition Promise Program Axed From Wisconsin Budget

By Emily Files

Since 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has guaranteed free tuition for students from low-income households under its Bucky's Tuition Promise program.

UW System interim President Tommy Thompson wanted to expand the program statewide — that would mean any student whose family income is $60,000 or less could attend any UW school tuition free. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers backed the proposal in his budget request.

But Republican lawmakers axed the proposal from the state budget with little discussion.

When Thompson announced last August that he wanted to expand the free college program statewide, he said the pandemic made college affordability a more urgent priority.

"As part of our commitment to make quality education more broadly accessible, what better time than right now during this COVID to give poor families a break and allow them to come to our great system?" Thompson said at a board of regents meeting.

Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point was happy to see the proposal. Shankland has tried in past legislative sessions to increase financial aid at state schools.

"You think of how many first-generation students and low-income students this would affect across the state," Shankland says. "And that’s really transformational to their lives and the opportunities that they would have."

But the Republican-led Joint Committee on Finance did not include the tuition promise program in its budget. Instead, the committee ended the eight-year-long UW System tuition freeze — potentially increasing costs for students in future years.

The finance committee's version of the budget was eventually passed by the GOP-majority Assembly and Senate, and signed by Evers.

A UW System spokesperson declined an interview request for this story, instead referring WUWM to Thompson's statement on the state budget.

"For them to remove the tuition freeze, which really makes higher education less affordable and even puts it out of reach for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, was a surprise to many," Shankland says.

Finance committee co-chairs Republicans Mark Born and Howard Marklein did not respond to interview requests for this story.

During floor debate on the budget, Republican Rep. Shae Sortwell of Two Rivers said people who don’t attend college shouldn’t have to subsidize the cost for others.

"Instead of those people who are getting the benefit of it paying for it, they want to take money out of the pockets of the hard-working factory workers across the state of Wisconsin, and say, 'You ought to fund the people who are going to get a better life out of [college.] We don’t care that you’re not benefitting from it," Sortwell said.

The expansion of the tuition promise program to all UW campuses was estimated to cost about $40 million over the next two years.

Douglas Harris is a professor of economics at Tulane University. He studies the impact that free tuition programs have on college enrollment and completion.

Here’s his response to Sortwell’s argument: "I think it’s better to think about it in terms of the collective good. What does it do for the state as a whole? And the evidence suggests that this would be beneficial for the state as a whole and good for just about everybody."

Harris said a major benefit of tuition promise programs is that they cut through the complicated question of financial aid and send a clear message.

"It sends a signal to students, especially low-income students, that they should be going to college, that people in the state want them to go college," Harris says. "It sets higher expectations, which I think is a good thing."

Maayan Montoute is a student at UW-Madison who receives the Bucky's Promise Program scholarship. Montoute says the free tuition guarantee was especially helpful during the pandemic, when her hours at her job were cut. Montoute is pictured here in 2019.

The clear message of Bucky’s Promise is what drew student Maayan Montoute to UW-Madison. Montoute is a 2019 Milwaukee Public Schools grad who is a beneficiary of the free tuition program. UW-Madison also covers her housing costs.

"The program has helped me a lot, even before the pandemic and even more so this past year," Montoute says. "Because a lot of students weren’t able to find jobs and they still had to pay their bills and tuition and things like that. So just not having to worry about that additional cost helped me to focus on my academics and just managing my personal life with everything that was going on at the time."

Montoute says some of her high school friends who attend other colleges have switched schools or dropped out for financial reasons. She thinks expanding the free tuition program to schools like UW-Milwaukee would help other students.

"A lot of people in my generation, we don't really feel like [college] is as worth it as it was before — especially when you're not guaranteed anything at the end of it," Montoute says. "Why do I want to take that chance spending all that money when I don't know if I'm going to get anything at the end?"

Even though the expansion of Bucky's Promise didn’t make it into the state budget, there is growing momentum for free college programs.

President Joe Biden wants to make community college free nationally. Biden also proposed increasing the federal Pell grant and directing more funding to colleges that serve large shares of students of color.

In Wisconsin, Rep. Shankland says she plans to push college affordability measures in the upcoming legislative session.

"I think we need to reassess our priorities and understand that as employers are talking about a workforce shortage, our higher education institutions are fundamental to fulfilling our workforce and economic development needs, and we need to invest in those institutions," Shankland says.