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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Report: Wisconsin college financial aid programs have stagnated, as costs for students rise

UWM class
Emily Files
A UWM science class in September 2021. According to a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, universities are relying more heavily on institutional financial aid for students. But some universities, such as UWM, are not able to provide as much institutional aid as others, like UW-Madison.

College has become less affordable for Wisconsin students, and the state’s own financial aid programs may partially be to blame.

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows that students’ unmet need for college has grown. Unmet need is the tuition cost that is not covered by financial aid or the student’s family contribution.

"Even after you adjust for inflation, unmet need for students receiving financial aid in Wisconsin has grown 135% from about $3,800 in 2000 to about $8,900 in 2021," says policy forum Research Director Jason Stein, who wrote the report.

Stein says the state's failure to invest more money in Wisconsin Grants is one contributing factor. The Wisconsin Grants program is the state's main financial aid program, which helped about 63,000 college students in 2021. The grants, which Stein says range from an average of about $860 for technical college students to about $3,200 on average for private nonprofit college students, are distributed based on financial need.

"Those grants grew rapidly in the 2000s, and since then have been relatively flat," Stein says. "So the buying power of those grants has eroded over time."

The lack of funding in the Wisconsin Grants also means some students who qualify for money don't receive it because it is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Federal aid, mainly in the form of Pell grants, has also stagnated, according to the report.

"Pell grants (distributed based on financial need) go disproportionally to students of color," Stein says. "It follows that if financial aid programs are not adequate, it's going to be low-income students and students of color who bear more of the effect of that."

Stein says as state and federal aid have lagged, colleges have been forced to provide more of their own dollars for student financial aid. But, some colleges have more resources to put towards financial aid than others.

"We see at UW-Madison, for instance, institutional grants to undergraduates receiving financial aid averaged about $9,900 per student in 2021. At UW-Milwaukee, on the other hand, they averaged $1,500," Stein says. "UW-Milwaukee is an institution with a lot of low-income students. Students tend to graduate with higher levels of debt than other UW campuses. And UW-Milwaukee has increased the amount of institutional aid they've provided over the years, but they're just starting at a much smaller base than UW-Madison."

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UW-Madison was able to fund a program called Bucky's Promise, which guarantees free tuition for students whose family income is $60,000 or less. The UW System proposed expanding the tuition promise program to all campuses, but the state funding needed for the expansion wasn't approved by the state Legislature.

Stein says instead of increasing funding for financial aid programs like Bucky's Promise or the Wisconsin Grants, state lawmakers have focused on an in-state UW System tuition freeze to keep college costs down. Now, lawmakers have given the UW System the ability to raise tuition.

"That also raises a question that if tuition is going to start to go up again that puts even more emphasis on financial aid," Stein says.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum report is partially funded by the Higher Education Regional Alliance, which is made up of colleges and universities in southeastern Wisconsin, along with the Herzfeld Foundation, the ADAMM Foundation and the Milwaukee Regional Research Forum.

WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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