La Crosse—When news broke last month that the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse planned to raise tuition by $1,320 to expand and diversify its student body, it generated so much controversy that the university erected a Web site defending the plan.
Among those who contacted the university was a state legislator, who demanded, “Could you explain what I would learn about working with people of ‘color’ had I attended the university that you envision?”
Interim Chancellor Elizabeth Hitch said the legislator wasn’t the only one with the query. “I had parents ask the same question, but in a less nice way.”
Hitch and other architects of the tuition increase are eager to frame it as something that will benefit all students. If it’s implemented, the $15 million generated will be used to fund the addition of 1,000 new students, 100 new teaching positions and an array of new student-support services. The tuition increase would be spread over three years. For the most part, faculty and staff are on board.
But some students, parents and politicians are opposed, especially to footing the bill for the diversity component. Nearly a quarter of the money would go toward financial aid and scholarships for low-income and minority students. Half of the new students enrolled under the plan would fall under those categories.
“I support racial diversity, but I don’t want to pay more for it,” said sophomore Jay Rumpca. Other students simply aren’t concerned about the lack of diversity.
What happens to the Growth and Access Agenda has implications for the entire UW System, which is struggling with diminishing state support, shrinking numbers of low-income students and a lack of racial diversity. It will serve as an indicator of what the state wants from public higher education.
There also was the problem of diversity. Since 1994, the percentage of students from the bottom two income quintiles had dropped from 35% to 22%, making UW-La Crosse the least economically diverse campus in the UW System after UW-Madison.
Overall minority enrollment had crept up from 4% to 5.5% during that time, but even with its strides, the university had less racial diversity than the western region of the state in which it is located.
Alcoa, General Motors Corp. and a division of Procter & Gamble Co. have stopped recruiting from UW-Madison in recent years, citing its lack of diversity. UW-La Crosse’s leadership felt that its students needed more diversity to succeed in academics and the workplace.
“We realized that if we’re going to be serious about diversity, we have to do something bold,” said Al Thompson, assistant to the chancellor for affirmative action and diversity.
The university knew the cash-strapped Legislature was unlikely to fund an expansion of its student body, faculty or financial aid. So university leaders settled on a staggered tuition increase starting in the fall of 2008 instead.
The UW System has increased tuition more than 50% since 2000 to offset reductions in state funding. This year, annual tuition at UW-La Crosse is $5,555 for Wisconsin students and $13,030 for students from most other states.
The leaders of the faculty, academic staff and student government gave their blessing to the plan, though not through any formal vote. So did UW System President Kevin Reilly and the system’s Board of Regents.
Last month, the regents voted to include UW-La Crosse’s Growth and Access Agenda plan in its budget request for 2007-’09, saying it was the type of initiative that would likely spread throughout the UW System.
But since it was approved by the regents, the tuition boost has been drawing criticism on and off campus.
The growth agenda must win the approval of the governor. But Jim Doyle and his Republican challenger, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Green, have balked at it. They say the tuition increase would make the university less accessible, not more.
“It’s obviously not going to make college more affordable for Wisconsin students,” Doyle spokesman Matt Canter said.
It’s a fear that is echoed by some students at UW-La Crosse, as well as the university’s director of enrollment management. They believe that middle-class students may not be able to make up the difference.
The idea of paying more money for diversity has been especially controversial.
Thompson said some parents want their children to be exposed to a multicultural student body to help prepare them for the global workplace. Others, he said, do not.