UW System proposes statewide tuition waiver program for low-income students

Wisconsin Tuition Promise estimated to assist up to 8K students

Golden light shines on Van Hise Hall
Van Hise Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Friday, April 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Some University of Wisconsin-System students from low-income families will have their tuition and fees waived under a new initiative announced by UW System President Jay Rothman.

The Wisconsin Tuition Promise will waive remaining costs not covered by financial aid for students from families with incomes below $62,000 per year beginning in fall of 2023.

During a Monday press conference at UW-Milwaukee, Rothman said part of the impetus for the tuition waiver is helping get more college graduates to state employers locked in “a war for talent.”

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“Quite frankly, if we don’t invest in them, if we don’t have more graduates, the great employers of the state of Wisconsin are going to have to do something and they’re going to invest elsewhere,” said Rothman.

The initiative is modeled after UW-Madison’s Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which has used private donations since 2018 to offer four years of free tuition and fees to students from families with adjusted gross incomes of $56,000 or less.

The first cohort of students graduating with the help of UW-Madison’s tuition waiver program walked across the stage in May.

Rothman said while the UW System is “very affordable” overall, it’s still not affordable for everyone.

He estimates around 8,000 students will receive tuition waivers once the Wisconsin Tuition Promise is fully implemented over the next four years. Average awards are expected to be around $4,500, but will be dependent on the amount of financial aid and grants a student receives.

The UW System anticipates spending around $13.8 million during the 2023-24 school year on the tuition waivers and will seek increased funding from the Republican-controlled state Legislature in subsequent years.

A UW System budget going before the UW Board of Regents this week will seek an additional $24.5 million from the Legislature on an ongoing basis to cover the tuition waiver. The total estimated cost to cover approximately 8,000 students will be $35.6 million, according to UW System documents.

This won’t be the first time state lawmakers have considered funding the Wisconsin Tuition Promise.

Former UW System President Tommy Thompson included a funding request for a 3.5 percent, or $95.7 million, increase in state funding for programs including the tuition promise under his August 2020 UW System budget. The initiative was supported by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and included in his state budget, but Republicans on the powerful Joint Finance Committee rejected it.

Still, Rothman is optimistic.

“I think we hope that the Legislature views this in the same way that we do — as a great investment in the long-term success of the state of Wisconsin,” he said.