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Republican bill would end race-based college aid, retention programs in Wisconsin

Funds and other programs would instead be focused on all disadvantaged students

Green grass and a blue sky surround Bascom Hall.
The sun shines on Bascom Hill on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, at UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin Republicans are pushing a bill that would end consideration of race in college scholarships, grants and loans, arguing the practice perpetuates stereotypes in higher education.

The GOP proposal would modify financial aid and other programs meant to increase minority enrollment and retention by making them available to all disadvantaged students.

The bill specifies that a student’s “race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or religion may not be considered, either directly or indirectly.”

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Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, is sponsoring the legislation. He said programs based on those characteristics make assumptions about life experiences that may not be true.

“You reinforce stereotypes onto people by taking those things into account,” Wimberger said. “If we’re ever going to move past that in a society, we need to do things like we’re doing here.”

The move by Republicans comes a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ended the use of race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities across the country.

The plan applies to a wide range of state-funded aid programs for the University of Wisconsin System and the Technical College System. It also would repeal a requirement that the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University School of Dentistry ensure five percent of their student bodies are minority students.

While Republicans hold big majorities in both houses of the Legislature, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signaled that Evers would likely veto the bill should it reach his desk.

“Gov. Evers has full confidence that the UW and other state agencies are perfectly capable of adhering to U.S. Supreme Court decisions without the unsolicited help of Republicans in the Legislature who’ve shown they neither understand nor appreciate higher education in Wisconsin,” said Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback in a written statement.

The proposal is the latest example of how disputes over race have taken center stage in higher education debates.

Another provision in the plan would modify a loan program for teachers who are employed in school districts where minority students constitute at least 40 percent of enrolled students. The bill changes the program so that the teacher must be employed in a district where at least 80 percent of enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said the loan program being changed was originally passed by Republicans in 2019.

“Even just talking about this sends a message that people aren’t welcome here. And I think that’s exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing in the state house right now,” Emerson said. “We need more people to be coming to Wisconsin, not fewer.”

The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, supports the plan. WILL attorney Dan Lennington said it would change current laws that exclude many people of Asian and Latino ancestry based on their national origin.

“We represent at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty a white man and his wife who is from Thailand and their biracial son. No one in this family is eligible for the minority undergraduate scholarships that are available right now under state law,” Lennington said.

“These people are excluded because of their race,” he said.

But Nicholas Hillman, a professor at UW-Madison who is an expert on student financial aid policy, said research evidence is “unambiguously” clear that having a diverse student body helps all students.

“There’s research consensus that diversifying the class of students has positive benefits for all students on campuses,” Hillman said.

A spokesperson for the University of Wisconsin System said they are reviewing the proposed legislation and will follow applicable state and federal law.

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