Bucky Tuition Promise: small step in right direction

Becky Blank and John and Tashia Morgridge have opened the doors wide to applicants from low- and medium-income families who want to go to college at UW – Madison.

The Morgridges, who grew up in Wauwatosa, met at UW – Madison and made a fortune while he was an executive at IT giant Cisco, put up $10 million in a matching donation to provide scholarships for students from families with incomes below $56,000. The “Bucky Tuition Promise” grants will cover $10,500 in annual tuition and fees at the state’s flagship campus.

That will be a gift of a lifetime for several hundred students.

It is reminiscent of the enormous ambition and good intentions in 2007 of Jessica Doyle, the then governor’s wife, former teacher and school administrator. She floated the concept of a “Covenant” with Wisconsin high school students. It promised college scholarships to any student who would finish high school, maintain a B average and have a track record as a good citizen.

There was a substantial initial donation, and kids across the state started signing up by the hundreds. But the country was headed into the Great Recession, and it soon became clear that there was not nearly enough money in the state coffers or potential donations to cover the huge numbers of scholarships that Covenant was promising.

It’s the curse of big numbers.

Limited programs like the Bucky Promise now being mounted by Blank, UW – Madison chancellor, can be financially viable because the numbers are low. But a broad scale program for all 26 UW campuses would require an endowment in the tens of billions.

Here’s the simple math: The Bucky Tuition Promise will cost about $3.3 million per year. That covers about 300 students on the Madison campus. Because it’s a four-year program, that means about 75 in each class.

Some Democrats at the national level have been pitching free tuition across the board. They better do the math, because they are talking about a big, big check.

A partial answer is the Republican tuition freezes that have been in place on the UW campuses for six years. They actually started at the 13 two-year UW Colleges a decade ago as a way to offer a low-budget start in the freshman and sophomore years. In addition to lower tuition, the students could, live at home.

Mitch Daniel former Indiana governor and now president of Purdue University, has installed a similar freeze, funded in part by intelligent cost cutting. His complimentary nickname when he headed then federal budget office was “The Blade.”

The tuition freezes have frustrated UW executives, who face intense inflationary pressures, but they ought to be looked at as a virtue. The tuition of about $9,000 at UW – Milwaukee, for example, is a real bargain for an education at a world-class urban university.

Like a lot of “businesses,” UWM needs to make it up in volume – the number of students it attracts — and with new revenue streams.

Chancellor Blank suggested that the Promise will help reduce the brain drain that has been seeing the exodus of 10,000 college graduates per year. (It tapered off some in 2017.) The Promise will help only a little – the curse of small numbers.

She could stem the exodus more by ending the Minnesota reciprocity agreement that puts about almost 3000 Gophers on the UW – Madison campus. That one-sided program sees a net loss back and forth across the border of about 750 graduates a year. Minnesota wins the “brain gain” hands down.

Kudos, though, to the chancellor and the Morgridges for getting the Promise going. It is for a broader program across all UW campuses when and if funds can be found.

Note: UW – Madison is supported by foundations with more than $8 billion in assets. They are hard to assess in terms of capability, because UW – Madison does not have a consolidated set of financial statements.

What better use of some of the proceeds from those assets than a broader scholarship promise across all 26 campuses?

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