You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

The University of Wisconsin Madison on Thursday announced a free tuition plan for many in-state students that will start in the fall, the latest development in the spread of free public college.

UW Madison will pay four years of tuition and segregated fees for incoming freshmen from Wisconsin who come from families with annual adjusted gross household incomes of $56,000 or less under a new program dubbed Bucky’s Tuition Promise. Transfer students meeting the income requirements will have two years of tuition and segregated fees paid. About 800 new students will have tuition covered each year, the university estimates.

The $56,000 cutoff was chosen because it is close to Wisconsin’s median household family income of $54,610. Income only -- not assets -- will be counted, and students will not have to fill out a separate application. The award will be made using information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which students will still need to file annually.

Those are important differences from some other states and public institutions that have put free tuition programs into place. The University of Michigan this summer announced a program offering four years of free tuition for in-state students with family incomes up to $65,000 per year, but that program has asset limits. New York State’s much-publicized Excelsior Scholarship requires a separate application.

UW Madison’s plan will cover the cost of tuition and fees no matter how many credits students take -- another key difference from New York, which requires a student to complete 30 credits per year. The university is urging students to enroll full-time, however, as the program is limited to eight semesters for incoming freshmen and four for incoming transfers. The program only covers fall and spring semesters.

The university expects the program to cost about $825,000 per year, per class, above current institutional financial aid spending. That means the university will spend roughly $3.3 million per year once four classes are enrolled. Funding will be drawn from private gifts and institutional resources. Tax dollars won’t be used, according to the university.

The program is a last-dollar award, meaning it is structured to plug the gap between the tuition and fees students are charged and any financial aid they receive. Students could still receive additional financial aid to cover other expenses like housing and food. They could also take out loans for living expenses.