Graphic by Max Homstad
Lingering presence of fiscal suffrage, exclusive campus culture stunts diverse campuses
It is no secret — attending college is expensive.
And, even though frozen tuition has tried to alleviate the economic burden, there remains a significant gap in both accessibility and affordability for underrepresented and low-income students.
Universities have made efforts to combat this, but still many students suffer at the hands of a faltering education system.
The combination of a lack of state support alongside years of idled tuition costs results in little revenue coming into universities available not only for aid, but administrative positions and degree programs.
Until the late 1980s, all-encompassing college costs were low and gave Wisconsin a “low-tuition, low-aid” moniker. It is now a moderate-to-high tuition, low-aid state, according to Noel Radomski, director and associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.
Public universities’ costs are often not fiscally feasible for most students, despite legislators efforts to combat this.
This fall, Gov. Walker froze tuition for the sixth year to make paying for schooling easier. Prior to losing re-election to Governor-elect Tony Evers, he planned to carry on freezing tuition for the next four years, marking ten years of capped costs for in-state undergraduates.
If tuition had not been frozen over the past five years, and increase trends would have remained the same, it would have cost more than $10,000 on top of current rates, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The desire to maintain a tuition freeze has resulted in an increase of student fees along with room and board costs. These rising prices often hide in plain sight within complex operating budgets.
Since 2013, obligatory student fees have risen between 10 percent and 35 percent on campuses, while room and board have grown between 3.4 percent and 18 percent. These costs add up to more than that of classroom instruction, given most first-year students live in campus housing and all students must pay segregated fees.
“Historically, until the late 1980s, total college costs were low and thus Wisconsin was a ‘low-tuition, low-aid state,’” Radomski said. “Today, we are a moderate/high-tuition, low-aid state.”
UW System President Ray Cross, among others, have found this decision puts the quality of education in jeopardy. He noted plans to explore every alternative to avoid closing any campuses.
That does not mean campuses have not endured hardships, as the merging of four-year with two-year colleges undergoes a transitional first year.
UW campuses, notably UW-Stevens Point, have dealt with potential cuts to faculty and academic programs to continue surviving at their location. As enrollment numbers have begun to dip due to decreasing high school graduation rates, schools have struggled with staying afloat with a lack of state funding.
In 2015, Gov. Walker cut more than $250 million from the UW System, encouraging a dialogue on the changing value place on higher education. The cuts were made over a period of three years, but the decision to periodically manage the decrease in funds only slightly improved the blow.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy recently released an analysis report of access and completion rates within public flagship universities in the Great Lakes region.
These flagship universities were founded on the premise that they would obliterate the long-standing history of inequities that result in lack of completion and accessibility at all education levels.
“Earning a college degree can serve as a catalyst for economic and social mobility for low-income, working class students and students of color, promoting our nation’s ideal that by working hard, anyone can succeed,” wrote Eleanor Eckerson Peters and Mamie Voight in their report.
And yet, Peters and Voight found extensive racial and economic inequities in access and completion linger within many higher education institutions, including those in the Great Lakes region.
They found that more African American, Hispanic and low-income students are pursuing degrees at public universities more often than they did 30 years ago.
However, the rising number of students of color has not sustained a balance in the changing demographics of the region.
More students of color are graduating high schools than in years past. However, they are not pursuing degrees in schools within the region. These graduation gaps are narrowing, yet students of color and low-income students are earning their degrees at lower rates than white and higher-income students.
The six-year graduation rate among all UW-Madison students is 87 percent. There is a decrease by five percent for minority students, who have an 82 percent graduation rate.
Chancellor Blank stated that a “college degree is the best way to address financial inequality,” while noting the importance of the IHEP report’s discussion of fundamental equity.
The accessibility gap in students of color in high school in comparison to college is 9 percent, while the completion gap between white and underrepresented minority graduates is 10 percent.
Low-income students share a similar reality as their socioeconomic status proves to be an undeniable factor in their ability to pursue a degree.
The lowest income in-state UW-Madison students at — those with family incomes of $30,000 or less — paid nearly $8,000 in college expenses in the 2015-’16 academic year. This results in students with the fewest resources at the university dedicating at least 25 percent of their income to college costs.
“Low-income students attend college at lower rates today than high-income students did forty years ago,” Peters and Voight wrote. “For the students who do enroll, their zip code and skin color are often as likely an indication of the college they attend as their intellect and work ethic.”
There is an 18 percent difference in accessibility for low-income students between all Wisconsin institutions and UW-Madison. 86 percent of non-low-income students graduated, while the rate was 78 percent of low-income students. This results in an 8 percent completion gap.
The report does not include Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese populations, which are an important part of underrepresented minorities in Wisconsin that the university is determined to serve, noted Meredith Mcglone, the director of news media and relations at UW-Madison.
These gaps in accessibility have been present for years, igniting questions surrounding the cause of these disparities.
The answer is campus culture — especially at a predominantly white campuses — according to Radomski.
The disparity does not lie in the economic requirements of campuses alone; the culture plays an important role in the appeal of UW System campuses to many students, including first-generation and adult learners.
This is also attributed to campus services, as the advisors and mentors among the faculty members are predominantly white. This creates an uninviting space for students of color, since there is no space on campus where they feel their concerns will be mitigated.
“Academic support services are designed and incrementally changed historically to serve white students,” Radomski said. “If the campus has a low number of minority faculty and academic staff, mentorship opportunities are lacking.”
However, that does not mean accessibility and affordability have not been met with efforts to improve.
Earlier this year, UW-Madison announced their initiative for Wisconsin high school graduates called Bucky’s Tuition Promise. This garners a series of scholarships and grants for students whose household adjusted gross income is $56,000 or lower.
Of the 796 Bucky’s Tuition Promise students who enrolled this fall, 86 percent are Pell-eligible and 56 percent are first-generation students.
Mcglone stated the importance of improving access to students develops in discussion between campus and community partners. This relationship will lead to more strategies to attract students in need of support.
As colleges look to improve enrollment of underrepresented and low-income students through initiatives like this, Radomski will keep an eye out for how they will shape their guidelines to balance fluctuating high-school graduation rates and family incomes.
“A significant problem, ironically, is that most colleges and universities rarely evaluate the effectiveness of their programs that are designed to recruit, enroll and graduate underrepresented students,” Radomski said. “Colleges and universities are learning organizations, yet frequently they do not critically and objectively analyze their programs.”