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Wisconsin Plan to Raise Tuition to Pay for Diversity Efforts Criticized


As a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Carmen Wilson likes the idea of sharply raising tuition to hire more professors and recruit more poor and minority students.

But as the middle-class parent of a college student, she’s not so sure about the public university’s plan to increase tuition by $220 per semester to pay for the expansion.

“I ask myself, ‘Would I be willing to donate that much to the university for those causes?’” Wilson says. “It’s absolutely a private school way of looking at it.”

UW-La Crosse has unleashed a wave of debate over its plan to expand without a dime of new state money. The experiment, if approved by the governor and lawmakers next year, could be copied by schools around the country looking for a creative way to find revenue, university officials predict.

The debate here is not about whether diversity and quality are worthwhile goals for a university, but about the price that’s worth paying for them.

The plan calls for an increase in tuition of $1,320 on top of any annual statewide tuition hikes for inflation over three years. The increases would be grandfathered so they would only affect new students starting in fall 2008.

The extra money, eventually hitting $15 million a year, would pay for adding 1,000 students, more financial aid and scholarships for low-income students and 100 more professors. The goal would be for half of the new students to be minorities or low-income.

With a recent national report card failing 43 states on college affordability, and a national commission on higher education forcefully calling on colleges to control costs, some wonder whether UW-La Crosse’s new goals are worth the price.

Critics say the increase would hit middle-class families already struggling with tuition costs that have been raised to make up for state budget cuts. Tuition at the school this year is $5,555, up 57 percent from five years ago.

Others balk at the university’s goal of using the money, in part, to ramp up efforts to recruit minorities to the 94 percent White school. Some have argued that the state, not students, should fund the expansion.

Both candidates for governor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, have questioned the program. Green pledged to stop “tuition hikes for diversity.” Doyle’s spokesman has said he doubts the plan would make the university more accessible.

Dr. Elizabeth Hitch, interim chancellor of the university, says the plan represents administrators’ best effort to maintain quality and increase access without additional state dollars.

The state has cut $6.3 million from the university’s budget over the past six years, leading to the elimination of 70 jobs and larger class sizes. To Hitch, the debate boils down to one question: “Who should pay for higher education?”

“We think the state ought to play a role, but we didn’t think that was likely so we looked for an alternative,” she says. “Do the private schools operate in this way? Yeah, they do. It is how they fund financial aid and make it possible for students to attend.”

Scholarships and additional aid would be targeted to students who come from families who rank in the bottom 40 percent of state income. For this year, that would be families with incomes of less than $47,000.

Hitch says the university is raising private money for more merit-based scholarships to soften the blow on middle-class students.

Al S. Thompson Jr., assistant to the chancellor for affirmative action and diversity, acknowledges the school is taking a gamble.

“We’re rolling the dice, knowing if we do this right, students will recognize the strength and the value of UW-La Crosse,” he says. “But you always run that risk that if you go too high, you price yourself out of the market.”

Citing the school’s high demand and top regional rankings, Hitch says she’s confident that won’t happen. The school received 6,700 applications for 1,750 seats this year.

Hitch says the 8,600-student university, which is known for its health science programs, was worth the additional money because of its above average graduation rates.

“It’s a good plan, at the right time, for the right reasons,” she says. “If we don’t get this plan, we won’t get bigger and we will cut programs.”

Wilson, the psychology professor who also chairs the faculty senate, says the plan would allow the university to reduce its faculty-to-student ratio by adding professors while diversifying an overwhelmingly White student body.

She says her department’s classes have grown from a maximum of 40 students to 45 today. Professors are tired of bigger classes and picking up extra duties, she says.

Current students generally supported the plan, but they won’t be the ones facing higher tuition bills.

“I think we’re short of teachers and it would definitely improve the quality of education,” says Ben Gadzalinski, a senior. “I’m not really for a tuition increase, but in the long run it might be a good thing.”

— Associated Press


Reader comments on this story:

There are currently 2 reader comments on this story:

“a very dangerous gamble”
How do you respond to the comment that $10 is all I am willing to pay for diversity?  What do you say to students and parents who say they are satisfied with the current diversity levels and opt out of the tuition increase?  This is a very dangerous gamble, defining the value of diversity in terms of tuition increases only.  Why is this the only avenue for funding?  Where is the university finding the funding to increase the merit-based scholarships?  Why not source that funding tuition increases?

     I realize the need for increased diversity.  As an African American woman born, raised, and educated in Iowa, I am glad Wisconsin is making an effort to truly educate the student body.  I just feel that this “put your money where your mouth is” plan is not the way to do it.
-Lois Garland-Patterson, PhD
Erie, PA

“thousands of opportunities”
      I find it ironic that they cut the budget over 6 million dollars but only lost 70 employees. Were these high paying employees?

     There are thousands of opportunities for students to attend and to take part of grants and other types of funding, why should there be a tax hike or tuition hike to fund every minority program in the state? I teach in an environment where we have 6,000 students and a great margin of them are doing just fine without the state or federal governments assistance and they are proud of that.

     Those of my friends who are of the minority demographics don’t want a leg up – they want to work hard and are determined to do it without government subsidies.

-James Sucese,

Salt Lake City, UT

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