Playing Politics with Financial Aid

July 13, 2011 | Blog

She just won’t quit. With only a few days left in her tenure as chancellor of UW Madison, Biddy Martin issued a press release this afternoon “asking” that the UW System Board of Regents allow Madison to spend $2.3 million of its new tuition hike on need-based financial aid.

She’s a “champion” of need-based aid says the press release, and this must be music to the ears of all of us concerned about affordability–right?

Wrong. Sadly, Martin is playing politics yet again and thinking of what’s best for her, rather than what’s best for all students from Wisconsin’s low-income families.

(1) Biddy Martin lobbied hard for new “flexibilities” for Madison this year and she got them. The money from the state arrives in a block grant, which means Madison now makes its own decisions about use of the differential tuition. She doesn’t need to “ask” UW System for this– and she knows it. (And boy, if she doesn’t know that ….)

(2) So why didn’t she simply just say “this is what the tuition should be used for,” instead of issuing a press release directly to the Board of Regents and System President Kevin Reilly? Because then her actions would be exposed for what they are: a demand on the incoming interim chancellor David Ward. Yes, while she runs off into the distance from the mess she’s created, Martin has already begun to boss Ward around. I suppose we can’t be surprised.

(3) This is her chance to reiterate her claim that she’s all about affordability. As noted in an earlier post, Martin says this is her big thing, reflects her values, etc– and it’s why she wants to go to Amherst. Except for this– Amherst serves about as many students from low-income families as Madison could cram into a single lecture hall. Puhleese.

(4) This proposal– hike tuition but give away a bunch of it to financial aid–raises eyebrows among thoughtful people about whether we “needed” the hike in the first place. Why not avoid hiking tuition and instead hold tuition flat for everyone? Martin draws on the arguments of some economists here who argue it’s most efficient and equitable to charge everyone what they can afford, redistributing funds from wealthier families to needier ones. Again, sounds good in theory. Unfortunately it’s just a mess in practice. In the real world, it pits students against students. It also sends an unintended message to state governments that institutions can take care of themselves. Just look at Martin– has she said even one word about the importance of the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant? Did she provide input to UW System as to how those limited resources could best be spent? I served on the Legislature’s Special Committee on the Reform of Financial Aid Programs last summer and the answer is “nope.” We heard not one word from Madison’s chancellor about her support for the need-based financial aid program that serves ALL students in Wisconsin public higher education. All we hear about is aid for Madison students. Doesn’t smell like team spirit to me.

(5) Finally, there’s an irony here. Last week economist Doug Harris and I issued a new study on the effectiveness of financial aid in Wisconsin. It demonstrates the need to target funds in order to make sure they are effective. Martin didn’t attend the conference (on Madison’s campus) where the paper was discussed, she didn’t send a note of support for the event, and she hasn’t asked to see the paper that was issued and that has been widely covered in the media. Funny decisions, for someone supposedly so supportive of need-based aid.

No, this is pure politics. Worse yet it’s playing politics with the hearts and minds of students from low-income families. And those who truly strive to serve them– all of them.


  1. Reply

    Jason Pickart

    July 14, 2011

    Regarding #4:

    How does it pit students against students? Or I suppose even more specifically, how would it be different from what we have now? Just getting into Madison is about competing with other students, as is the setup for certain scholarships/fellowships.

    I just don't see how increasing tuition by something like $2000 which is then offset by grants or more aid for students who need it in order to attend is a bad idea. The same people who are able to attend Madison now would still be able to under that arrangement. Keeping tuition low or freezing it for the other UW System schools seems like a good way to keep college affordable as well as provide a cheaper pathway of access to Madison (which is basically how it is now, myself and others I know have benefited greatly financially through attending a UW System school and then transferring to Madison).

  2. Reply

    only reader

    July 15, 2011

    Sara- I have some questions about your paper related to this post.

    Most of what I saw (looking at the paper, not press releases) looked like it did not support the idea that financial aid helps at all, at least not when statistics are viewed in a "bulk way, " e.g. combining all aid recipients in the analysis. That was quite surprising to me actually, and interesting...

    In exploratory data analysis, you did find an effect that you describe as: "students with a low (pre‚Äźrandomization) propensity to persist in college received sizable positive benefits from the cash transfer, while students who were already more likely to persist in college received no benefit, and some may have been negatively affected."

    This work is fascinating, but other than stimulating more research, at this point I don't see actionable policy steps coming from your paper results. Is that accurate?

  3. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    July 16, 2011

    @Only reader. Thanks for reading the paper. Several things--first, yes, on average across the board the grant didn't help students stay enrolled year to year, but it did affect the distribution of completed credits. Arguably, among students who already enrolled in a university, that's the key outcome of interest--progress towards a degree. It increased by 28% the chance of being on track for a 4-year BA after 2 years. I think that's important, don't you?

    As for actionable policy steps, yes, I do see several. First, as laid out in the paper there are implications for the decision-making about adjustments to Pell right now (especially the proposal to make full-time = 15 credits per term). More broadly, while the analysis of heterogeneous effects is more tentative, it's still based on an experimental framework and much stronger than a typical analysis--and it strongly suggests biggest bang for financial aid dollars would come from targeting the $$ better once students are farther along in college.

    Take a look at the discussion in part 1 of my conference presentation on this paper:
    07.08.11 | Affordability and College Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education (Part 1 of 4)

    And also look at the discussion in Thursday's Regents meeting (video archives on System website, around the 1 hour 3 min mark) for more.

    Actionable? Yes. Will we continue to do more to increase the degree to which it is actionable? Yes.

    Does that help?

  4. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    July 16, 2011


    If your objective is to keep Madison where it is and not expand opportunities further to Wisconsin students, you may be right. But over time, ir's clear that opportunities for WIsconsin students at Madison are eroding in favor of out-of-state students from increasingly wealthy families (see John Witte's talk at my recent conference here:
    In particular 07.07.11 | Affordability and College Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education ).

    As you consider whether the right approach is simply keeping other UW System schools affordable, and letting Madison do whatever it wants, you may also want to reflect on what evidence says about the benefits ofa school like Madison for the MOST disadvantaged students. See Rick Kahlenberg's talk at my conference--same link as above but this time see 07.08.11 | Affordability and College Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education (Part 3 of 4)

  5. Reply

    Jason Pickart

    July 21, 2011

    Hi Professor Goldrick-Rab,

    First, thanks for the as always thoughtful response. I took some time and watched quite a bit of the conference (focusing on the two speakers you recommended) which I found to be very fascinating. In particular, the calculator is simply excellent (though it could use a little work from a web design perspective, but I digress).

    There are three main things that I took away from John Witte's presentation about this topic:

    -UW-Madison has become more focused on merit (i.e. better ACT scores)
    -Poor students are slightly more likely to be accepted than rich students, other factors being equal
    -There are more upper income students attending UW-Madison, in large part spurred by the increase in out-of-state students

    Bearing in my mind these three things as well as the fact that more prepared students do better on the ACT, and that more prepared students generally come from wealthier families, I actually come away more convinced that the UW System schools should be used as a gateway to UW-Madison. I don't think that UW-Madison should be a school that accepts 90% of the applicants who apply, the fact that it was this way in the past is a bit shocking. That might have worked in the past when few students went to college, but now you have to have some way to differentiate between the glut of applicants. Using grades and ACT scores is a fair way of doing this, and as John Witte's data shows, the school is not only giving those from a low-income background a fair shake, it's actually giving them a boost in their chances at being admitted....

  6. Reply

    Jason Pickart

    July 21, 2011

    ...Of course there is the aforementioned problem that doing well in high school and on the ACT does have a lot to do with family background, in particular income. But that's where the UW System schools can come into play by offering a fair and affordable 'second-chance' so to speak to those from disadvantaged backgrounds that weren't able to get accepted out of high school. Not only do you get the opportunity to take college classes which will transfer to UW-Madison (usually), but when you apply to transfer you don't even need to send in your ACT scores. Transferring is based almost solely on college grades, providing the perfect opportunity for someone to show that they belong at a school like UW-Madison.

    Keeping the UW System schools affordable and making sure that community colleges focus on preparing students to transfer to a school like UW-Madison would also allow for socioeconomic diversity at UW-Madison. The transfer students will also have less overall debt even if UW-Madison's sticker price gets increased, thus helping them ease their financial burden. It's the best of both worlds.

    I do think that ideally there should be enough tax dollars available to make our high schools better, to make UW-Madison as affordable as other UW System schools (though it is close right now), and to close out the unfair nature that family income plays in the meritocracy of getting into a selective college. But without those tax dollars available we have to prioritize -- in my mind that means ensuring that UW-Madison continues to have a selective student body which helps it being a top ranked school. To offset this we can use UW System colleges as a low cost way for those squeezed out by this compromise of sorts.

    Finally, apologies for this extremely long (two part) comment!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

© 2013 The EduOptimists. All Rights Reserved.