On Thursday, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System approved a plan that would increase tuition for all students at the university's La Crosse campus by a total of $1,320 over three years to diversify the student body there.
A tenet of the “Growth and Access” plan is to expand the number of enrolled students by 1,000, with half of those being low-income or underrepresented minority students. Enrollment at La Crosse now stands at over 8,500 students, of which approximately 500 are minority students.
Officials say that their drive is meant to go beyond rhetoric when it comes to increasing diversity. But they believe it’s going to cost more money -- and take a lot of public relations efforts -- to do the kind of outreach and faculty hiring that they say is necessary to accomplish their goals. “This will increase the quality of education,” said Ronald Lostetter, the university’s vice chancellor for administration and finance. “We need to prepare students for future realities. This is the right thing to do -- it’s reflective of the world out there.”
Several members of the Board of Regents were convinced that a new approach to increasing diversity is necessary. To naysayers, Lostetter said that the approach would help everyone, not just low-income and minority students.
The changes, which are expected to generate $15 million, would help hire new faculty members, provide financial aid for recruiting low-income and minority students, and support outreach to Wisconsin’s elementary and secondary school system and retention efforts.
Lostetter said that the new tuition would put the institution “in the mid-range” of its upper Midwest peer group, and an education at La Crosse would still cost less than at the system’s Madison and Milwaukee branches. Tuition and fees currently stand at $5,550. The increase would come on top of regular annual tuition increases.
Under the pilot plan, if the state's governor and lawmakers approve it, the tuition increase would occur over a three-year period. Any number of changes could happen along the line, if lawmakers and even university officials end up wanting to modify some aspects of the plan.
Already, opposition has arisen from at least one key legislator. State Rep. Robin Kreibich (R-Eau Claire), chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week  that the program would “antagonize Wisconsin families, who don't want to see their tuition bills rise.” Kreibich could not be reached for further comment over the weekend.
"If it's not to attract more minority students, it will be for some other purpose, and the affordability index will continue to rise," the newspaper quoted Kreibick as saying.
Other opponents of the plan have said it would put too much of the onus of paying for public higher education on individuals, rather than the state.
The UW System has had its levels of state support reduced by about $250 million between 2003 and 2005.
“It would be nice if the state would increase its investment in higher ed,” said Lostetter. “But for the last six years, that just hasn’t happened.”