About 800 state residents admitted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison next fall will get free tuition and fees, depending on income.

If you’re a Wisconsin resident admitted as a new student to the University of Wisconsin-Madison next fall — and your family’s adjusted gross income is $56,000 or less — you’ve just been given a free ride.

Well, free tuition and segregated fees. You’re on your own for books, housing and other living expenses under Bucky’s Tuition Promise program.

Noting that the cost of college is a major worry for many low- and medium-income families, and the workforce needs the state’s brightest young people to stay here, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank on Thursday announced a major new investment that will put the state’s flagship campus alongside other public higher education institutions around the country that have free tuition “promise” programs for students who qualify.

University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca BlankUniversity of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank (Photo: Wisconsin State Journal)

The pledge is expected to cover more than 800 Wisconsin residents in each new incoming class of freshmen and transfer students. It will cost about $3.3 million each year — $825,000 annually from the university’s own funds, and the rest from private donors.

No state tax dollars will be used, Blank told the UW System Board of Regents during a regents meeting on the UW-Madison campus.

She said it’s now possible to make “a few long-overdue investments,” in part because this is the first year since she arrived in 2013 that the university hasn’t been dealing with state budget cuts. Also, the number of outside offers in efforts to raid top faculty appear to have leveled off.

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“There are a lot of good things happening around campus,” Blank said. “It’s a year when we feel we’re moving forward,” including focusing on expanding revenue through entrepreneurial efforts, she said.

Incoming freshmen from Wisconsin who meet the threshold of a family adjusted gross income of $56,000 or less — including the student’s own income — automatically will receive four years of free tuition and segregated fees, according to Blank.

The so-called Bucky’s Tuition Promise program will provide need-based grants — not loans — only to students who attend consecutive semesters — eight semesters for freshmen, and four for transfer students.

The program will heavily depend on private fundraising.

In December, the university announced it received $10 million in matching money for need-based scholarships from alumni John and Tashia Morgridge. Once the match is complete, it will generate a $20 million endowment for need-based scholarships, which will provide a substantial part of the new funding needed for Bucky’s Tuition Promise.

Students from low-income families may be eligible for additional aid to help cover living expenses — something critics of “promise” programs say can still be a daunting financial burden for many families.

The roughly $10,500 cost of resident tuition and fees — less than half the estimated $26,000 total in-state resident cost of attending UW-Madison — will be the minimum level of financial aid offered to low- and moderate-income families in Wisconsin, Blank said.

“We want to make sure that all students from Wisconsin who are admitted to UW-Madison can afford to come,” Blank told the regents on Thursday. “Many low- and middle-income families in Wisconsin are simply uncertain whether they can afford tuition at UW-Madison.”

The campus has almost tripled the dollars available for need-based scholarships over the last 10 years, Blank said.

Bucky’s Tuition Promise is the latest investment UW-Madison has made in an effort to stem “brain drain” from the state’s workforce.

Last year, 14% of undergraduates attended UW-Madison tuition-free, Blank said.

A year ago, Blank rolled out the Badger Promise program; 139 students so far have benefitted from that guarantee of free tuition for first-generation students who transfer to UW-Madison after completing a degree at one of the two-year Wisconsin public schools.

About a fourth of the 139 students in Badger Promise are from rural Wisconsin high schools; more than half are under-represented students of color, and about a third are eligible for low-income Pell grants, which means they qualify for two full years of free tuition.

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The campus last year rolled out a second program called Wisconsin PRIME, which targets Wisconsin high school students with top grades and an ACT score of 30 or higher.

The goal for that program is to reach 800 students with high-touch recruiting to woo them to Madison. The share of state applicants with an ACT score of 30 and above rose by 7% last year, the first year of the program, Blank said.

Out-of-state applications are up more than 70% in the past decade; nearly 30% this year alone, despite steep tuition increases for non-residents. Currently, the university collects more than $300 million in tuition from out-of-state students every year, Blank said.

The university expects to expand its freshman class “a little” by tapping into the deeper pool of non-resident applicants, as the number of Wisconsin high school students is stagnant or declining, the chancellor said.

Expanding non-resident enrollment, including international students, also brings more diversity to the student body, she said.

About 22% of non-resident students a year after graduation are still in Wisconsin, working here, Blank said.

The university is in a number of conversations with Foxconn Technology Group about potential research partnerships, particularly in artificial intelligence (UW-Madison’s artificial intelligence program is ranked in the top 20 nationally), research and development of automated vehicles (UW-Madison has one of just 10 programs in the country), and cancer research, Blank said.

Foxconn has “a good sense of the extraordinary talent” because their director of U.S. strategic initiatives, Alan Yeung, is a UW-Madison graduate, she said.

Companies generally want to be located near research universities to help them stay on the cutting edge of technologies in their field, the chancellor said

UW-Madison guarantees a minimum of 3,600 Wisconsin residents in every freshman class. This year, there are more than 3,700 Wisconsin resident freshmen, and typically about two-thirds of in-state applicants are admitted, Blank said.

Less than half of out-of-state students are admitted, she said.

Fifty years ago, most of the best students in Wisconsin came to UW-Madison, Blank said. Now they look at public and private colleges across the nation — especially higher-income families.

“And once they leave the state for college,” she said, “they are much more likely to take first jobs and establish careers elsewhere.”

“We are at a moment where there is a debate about the role of universities in our society,” Blank said, noting a “recent survey found a substantial number of people saying colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.”

Economic data still suggests those with a two-year or four-year college degree will have the best chance of finding decent-paying jobs and a low chance of unemployment, she said.

“UW-Madison has come in for its share of criticism over the years, and some of it well-justified,” Blank said. But the state’s flagship university still is among the best research institutions and top public universities in the country, she said.

All revenue among peer public schools has grown almost twice as fast as it has at UW-Madison, and the campus has lost ground because others were investing more in their future, the chancellor said.

Her plan to increase revenue:

  • Expand summer semester. Another 192 new courses will be rolled out this summer, potentially helping students finish degrees faster and giving them flexibility to take internships during the semester.
  • Expand programs for professionals in collaboration with employers. In the last five years, 40 new professional masters and capstone programs have launched, and another nine new ones are starting over the next year.
  • Set market-based tuition for non-resident and professional school students.
  •  Increase alumni support. The university is nearly three-fourths of the way to raising a $3.2 billion fundraising campaign goal, with record participation by more than 170,000 friends and alumni.
  • Increase research funds. After three years of declines, “we’ve had two years of significant increases,” she said.

Blank previously announced a plan for cluster hires this fall — joint hires of three faculty members who work on similar scientific issues but from different disciplines to build strength in key research areas.

That’s how neuroscience research has advanced since the last time a cluster hiring program was in place 15 years ago, Blank said. That cluster has produced 17 new patents, a startup company dedicated to translating research into the marketplace and $33 million in grants and donor gifts.

The university received 48 proposals involving 150 faculty members from every academic school and college when asked to suggest potential cluster hires, Blank said. Six cluster hires will be funded this fall, she said.

Blank said the only higher-ranked public institution in the Big Ten is the University of Michigan. But a Wisconsin resident attending Michigan would pay more than $47,000 a year in tuition and fees to go there, as opposed to $10,533 in tuition and fees at UW-Madison.

The University of Minnesota costs about $4,000 more in annual tuition: $16,000 more for a four-year degree, even with the reciprocity agreement. And that school is ranked No. 25, “well below us,” Blank said.

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