Wisconsin barely passes college affordability

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If Wisconsin was a student, its recent grades would warrant a note to its parents.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education published the report, "Measuring Up 2004: The State Report Card on Higher Education." Wisconsin colleges, both private and public, received a D in affordability. The grade was worse than received in 2002, when the state gained a C, or 2000, when the state earned a B+.

Families who send their children to schools in the University of Wisconsin system "devote a fairly large share of their income to attend public four-year colleges and universities," according to the report. The report also criticized the state's investment in need-based financial aid as "very low."

The outlook for Wisconsin private schools is bleak. Without financial aid, the average Wisconsin family would have to spend 54 percent of its income on a private college education.

Dan Goyette, director of financial aid at Marquette, said the problem in financial aid for Wisconsin college students is the increasing cost of tuition without a parallel increase in financial aid. In Wisconsin, 16 percent of college students attend private schools.

The cost of tuition and fees at Marquette rose nearly $4,000 over the last four years, from $16,488 to $20,350, Goyette said. However, money from the Wisconsin Tuition Grant program, which gives Wisconsin residents grants to attend private schools, remained steady at an average of $2,500 per student.

Others say the picture does not look so bad for Wisconsin private college students.

Although aid from government sources has not risen, aid for students at private colleges has grown, said Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, of which Marquette is a member.

Wegenke said $200 million had been donated yearly for grants and scholarships to the 20 private schools in WAICU, compared to the $20 million from the state.

The economy also factors into affordability, Goyette said. Since the economy is going through a rough period, more students need grants and loans from the state, straining already limited resources. Goyette said he was not sure whether state politicians would vote to improve funding for college students, especially with the state fighting a deficit.

"But if the past is any indication, here, we'll be able to hold our own but from time to time have small improvements" from state aid, Goyette said.

Wegenke said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the message of funding colleges would get through to the state. He said local politicians had contacted him for information after the release of the report.

"It's a matter of setting priorities," Wegenke said.

The UW System, which includes every public university in the state, is also concerned by the report's conclusion.

The Board of Regents submitted a budget proposal to Gov. Jim Doyle the day the report was released, according to a UW System press release. The proposal asked for a 7.2 percent increase in state support over the next three calendar years. Doyle will submit his budget to the state legislature in 2005.

Without the funding increase, budget cuts will be necessary for the UW System, said Doug Bradley, director of communications for the UW System. Bradley said the Board of Regents was "cautiously optimistic" about the funding being approved.

Despite its D grade, Wisconsin is among the top states for affordability. The 36 states that received an F included Michigan and Missouri. Minnesota received a C- and Illinois received a D.

Wisconsin received good grades in other ratings. The National Center gave the state a B+ for preparing high school students for college, a B for the number of high school seniors enrolling in college, and an A for students completing college.

Grades were determined from a series of measures of success in each area covered by the report. Data from these measures was put on a scale of 0 to 100, from which a percentage grade was determined. The grade was compared to a typical college grading scale to obtain the letter grade.

Representatives from the National Center were unavailable for comment.

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