UW-Madison graduation
AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES

About 150 students at two-year colleges around Wisconsin are expected to enroll in a new UW-Madison program giving first-generation college students a year or more of free tuition when they transfer to the state’s flagship public university, officials said.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in a semester welcome message on Wednesday that Badger Promise — a program pledging grants to cover the cost of tuition for transfer students who are the first in their family to attend college — will sign up its first participants this fall.

Blank had floated the program in February, as University of Wisconsin System leaders made their pitch for more higher education funding in the coming state budget, saying she could pursue it only if her university had enough money.

While the overdue budget has not been finished, the UW System is on track to receive $36.2 million in new state funding over the next two years, and Blank said her campus will move forward with Badger Promise.

UW-Madison officials did not offer many specifics about the program following Blank’s message, citing plans to formally unveil it later this month. They declined to provide a full list of two-year colleges where students will be eligible for Badger Promise, or an estimate of how much the initiative is expected to cost.

The basics of the program that Blank sketched out in February remain the same, however.

Badger Promise is open to first-generation college students who transfer to UW-Madison from one of the UW System’s two-year campuses or certain technical colleges, including Madison Area Technical College.

Once they transfer, participants will receive grants that cover the cost of tuition for their first year at UW-Madison, campus spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said.

Those who are eligible for federal Pell grants, which are given to low-income college students, would receive a second year of free tuition as well.

The program’s inaugural class, which UW-Madison will begin signing up this semester, is expected to include about 150 students who are currently in their first or second year at two-year colleges.

The first students to receive aid from the program will enroll at UW-Madison for the fall 2018 semester, McGlone said.

“We hope the program expands as more Wisconsin families learn of this opportunity,” Blank said.

Participants, like others who want to transfer from two-year schools to UW-Madison, will have to sign contracts that guarantee them admission to the university if they meet GPA and credit requirements.

Badger Promise comes as UW-Madison has faced questions about its accessibility for low-income and first-generation college students; the number of first-generation students at the university has been declining, even as overall enrollment has grown.

The program is also the latest example of free-tuition “promise” initiatives that have sprouted up at public colleges and universities in an effort to ease the growing financial burden of higher education for low-income families.

MATC is enrolling its first class this fall of “Scholars of Promise” — low-income students who receive free tuition. Three-quarters of the 210 participants in the program are first-generation college students.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.