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A view of the rotunda and the east and the south wings of the state Capitol, from the second floor. Photo by Sarah B. Tews/State Journal archives

A proposal to eliminate race as a factor in a college grant program received preliminary approval from the Assembly Wednesday morning, the Associated Press reports.

The surprise proposal was made about 11 p.m. Tuesday by Rep. Peggy Krusick, D-Milwaukee, and backed by Republicans, who hold the majority. It passed around 8 a.m. Wednesday -- with all Democrats except Krusick voting against it. A procedural move by Democrats, however, will block final passage until Thursday.

Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, said the Talent Incentive Program is intended to help poor students -- therefore, whether one is a minority shouldn't matter.

But some disagree.

"The Wisconsin Financial Aid Study, which I co-direct, has found that grants are most effective when targeted to the students least likely to graduate from college," says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a UW-Madison associate professor of education policy studies and sociology. "The playing field in K-12 and higher education remains uneven, and thus race continues to have an important relationship to graduation. I encourage our Legislature to use empirical evidence to guide their decision-making, so as to make the best use of scarce resources."

The Senate probably won't decide whether to take up the measure until 2012.  Wednesday is the last day that house is slated to debate bills until it comes back in January.

The AP reports that the bill at the heart of this debate originally made mostly technical tweaks to a $4.4 million program that extends grants worth between $600 and $1,800 to the most needy and educationally disadvantaged students attending college in the state, with some 4,300 students per year qualifying.

Those applying for the Talent Incentive Program grants must be poor and a "non-traditional student." To qualify as a "non-traditional student," the applicant must meet one of several criteria, including being handicapped, a first-generation college attendee or black, Indian, Hispanic or Hmong.

The amendment removed being a minority as one of the qualifiers for the grants.

"I am disgusted by what happened in the Assembly," Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, said in a statement. "Yet again the GOP has shown they will use any issue to distract from the fact they are not doing anything to create jobs in Wisconsin. They have chosen to divide our state repeatedly, by pushing right-wing social measures and attacking the economic security of middle class families. The ‘highlight' of this jobless special session was the surprise stripping away of educational opportunities for young people of color."

Across the University of Wisconsin System, 2,476 students received Talent Incentive Program grants in 2010-11 totaling $3.7 million. That's an average award of just more than $1,500. At UW-Madison alone, 271 students received these grants, with the average award of $1,604.

"The bill's intent was to preserve students' eligibility for this particular financial aid program, even if they need to step out for one semester due to a family emergency or illness or other situations," UW System spokesman David Giroux said in an email to the Cap Times. "Our colleges and universities recognize that needy students face these hurdles perhaps more often than others, and ensure that life circumstances don't become roadblocks to educational opportunity. The amendment represented a significant change to the intent of this bill, and none of us have had any time to analyze or discuss this change."

Those who attend state technical and private colleges also are eligible for these grants. At Madison Area Technical College, 85 students were awarded these TIP funds, with an average payout of $1,245. At Edgewood College, 26 students received funds from the program, with the average award of $1,535. (To see an institution-by-institution breakdown of Talent Incentive Program funding, click here.)

Several Democrats involved in the late-night debate were outspoken in opposing the measure.

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"What it is is racism in its highest institutional level," said Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, according to the AP report.

"I ask you please on behalf of Wisconsin's growing Latino community to reject this," said Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The fact that the debate on this surprise proposal took place during the middle of the night also angered some.

This isn't the first time this fall members of the Assembly have debated minority rights and affirmative action programs related to higher education.

In October, The Assembly's Colleges and Universities Committee held an "informational hearing" at the Capitol to learn more about UW-Madison's "holistic" admissions process that looks at a wide range of factors, including race, to determine who gets into Wisconsin's flagship institution of higher education.

That hearing was called after a conservative think tank in September released two reports which purported to show that UW-Madison discriminates against whites and Asians by admitting less qualified black and Latino students.