Michael Dannenberg

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW-Milwaukee), college-move in day looks similar—filled with the same excited hustle and bustle of unloading suitcases, squeezing storage bins under twin-sized beds, and filling shelves with overpriced, required course books.

But there’s a major difference for students at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee—and it’s not the mascot. My organization looked at federal data and found the contrast in background and prospects of students attending UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee is one of the sharpest among within-state public research universities in the country.

UW-Madison generates terrific results for its students and a near 90 percent graduation rate but enrolls one of the least economically diverse public college student bodies in the country — worse than every other Big 10 public university, worse than every other public college in America outside of the University of Virginia.

UW-Milwaukee serves three times the percentage of working-class and low-incomes students as UW-Madison, but students graduate at a rate sorely lacking when compared against peer institutions serving similar students with similar characteristics.

Barely one in six African American UW-Milwaukee students completes a bachelor’s degree within six years of initial enrollment. Overall, less than half of UW-Milwaukee students complete, meaning many leave with debt and no degree – at a rate worse than every one of their peer institutions.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and at least modest improvement doesn’t have to cost taxpayers a dime.

In 2017, approximately 32 percent of all college students received a Pell Grant, typically coming from families with incomes below $60,000 a year. At UW-Madison, less than 12 percent did. With a couple of one year exceptions, that rate basically was the same each of the 12 years prior.

One in five students who scores in the 90th percentile or higher on the ACT comes from a Pell Grant-eligible family. In 2017, the share of students receiving a Pell Grant was 20 percent or higher at three-quarters of all public research universities. Many, including the University of Michigan, have higher admission standards than UW-Madison. There’s no good reason for UW-Madison to serve a low percentage of Pell Grant eligible students.

Now, UW-Madison leaders rightly tout the school’s Bucky Promise that guarantees enrolled low-income students zero tuition and fees. But that excludes room and board expenses that should be covered. And how good is a targeted, free college promise if the college doesn’t actually enroll qualified students from working class and low-income backgrounds?

State leaders, community leaders, faculty, students and alumni should pressure UW-Madison to improve their access and affordability and help UW-Milwaukee do the same on completion.

The heavy pressure should come from state leaders who can make clear to receive future Wisconsin higher education funding or tax benefits, UW-Madison needs to increase its share of enrolled Pell Grant recipients to a bare minimum or transfer funds that would be spent serving those missing students to UW-Milwaukee to better enable it to serve working-class and low-income students UW-Madison should be enrolling.

If the bar were set at a minimum Pell Grant student enrollment of 20 percent, as Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Workforce recommends, in 2017 UW-Madison would have had to either increase its working class and low-income enrollment by about 500 students or transfer some $5.6 million to UW-Milwaukee annually. That type of money can go a long way at UW-Milwaukee.

There’s now a substantial body of independent research indicating that institutions of higher education can double low-income student graduation rates without watering down standards.

Colleges markedly increase graduation rates when they make use of data systems to flag students for super early intervention and increase student grant aid, provide free transportation, and perhaps most importantly, make use of soft touch interventions like increased academic counseling and outside caseworkers who connect students with public social services including food aid, housing aid, and domestic violence assistance.

Much of the time it’s not academics, but life – a broken down car, childcare gap, medical expense – that leads students to stop out and eventually drop out. It doesn’t have to be.

UW-Madison has a reported $2.9 billion endowment. It should provide resources to UW-Milwaukee for doing UW-Madison’s job on the socioeconomic mobility front. If UW-Madison wants to step up and start enrolling and serving talented working class and low-income students at a responsible rate, all the better.

One way or the other, Wisconsin needs to recommit itself to a making a meaningful commitment to diversity at its public research universities. The picture at these schools shouldn’t be black and white. It should be multicolored, vivid, and promising of a bright future for all students enrolled, those to come, and the state as a whole.

Michael Dannenberg is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Education Reform Now (ERN), a non-profit think tank dedicated to education access, equity, and success. He is a former official in the Obama administration. ERN receives support for its higher education work from the The Joyce Foundation, which invests in public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility in the Great Lakes region.