University Sets Diversity at a Premium

The University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse is proposing an increase in tuition to fund greater racial and economic diversity among students. The proposal has set off a protest from parents and legislators, who are concerned that it would price many students out of a higher education.

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Many colleges are working to diversify their campuses, but the idea of asking other students to pay for it is pretty rare. The University of Wisconsin LaCrosse has proposed increasing financial aid to low income and minority students and paying for it by raising tuition $1,300 per student. As you might expect, not everyone on the campus thinks the tuition hike is the right approach.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: The University of Wisconsin LaCrosse is a rising star among its peers, climbing in national rankings. But its improved academic profile and increased popularity is also making the school more selective. The university would like to grow and add 1,000 additional students in coming years, but in the process, educators and students say they've got to address this stark reality.

Ms. SARAH ALBRANTS (ALANA, University of Wisconsin): It's not very diverse at all.

SCHAPER: Sarah Albrants is a sophomore and co-president of a group called ALANA - Asian, Latina, African and Native American. It's the organization for women of color on campus.

Ms. ALBRANTS: The majority of the students are Caucasian and it's not diverse. It's not.

SCHAPER: Albrants, who's Hispanic, says she and all her classmates are at a disadvantage because of that lack of diversity.

Ms. ALBRANTS: We're going to have careers. We're going to need that experience, that education to prepare us for the rest of our life. I think it's very valuable. And not having that experience creates prejudice, creates stereotypes.

SCHAPER: Like much of the upper Midwest, the LaCrosse region is not incredibly diverse to begin with. But the UW LaCrosse campus is even less diverse than the city and the state. Fewer than six percent of students are racial minorities. Interim chancellor Elizabeth Hitch says the school has become less economically diverse, too.

Dr. ELIZABETH HITCH (University of Wisconsin): We actually have had a fall off of students from the lower two economic quintiles in the last several years.

SCHAPER: So to fix the problem, UW LaCrosse wants to raise tuition even more, $1,300 a year after a three year phase in period. That's on top of the regular yearly tuition hikes. A significant chunk of the extra revenue would be used to increase financial aid and scholarships for low income and minority students. Most of the rest will go towards additional faculty and staff to reduce class sizes and improve student services.

Many colleges and universities already funnel some tuition from middle and upper class students into financial aid, but few increase tuition specifically for this purpose. Hitch says she's hoping middle income families will see the benefits.

Dr. HITCH: The biggest thing that I try to remind parents is that they're actually getting more for their money.

SCHAPER: But many students aren't so sure.

Ms. MEGAN BRAGEN(ph): It'd be good if more minorities would be here, I think, but I don't like have to pay for it.

SCHAPER: As she crosses the campus between classes, junior Megan Bragen of Oshkosh says she'd welcome the different perspectives that would come with greater diversity, but she and others like junior Jason Stumpkes(ph) of Coon Valley, Wisconsin, worry about the cost.

Mr. JASON STUMPKES: I think it's a great idea to bring diversity in, but they've got to find a way to somehow keep the tuition down.

SCHAPER: Stumpkes says, in addition to getting a little financial aid, he's already taken out loans and is working just to afford school.

Mr. STUMPKES: It just gets too much for me.

SCHAPER: Off campus, some parents and politicians are outraged, saying middle income families are doing all they can just to afford college as it is. State Representative Rob Kreibich calls the proposal a diversity surcharge.

Representative ROB KREIBICH (Republican, 93rd Assembly District, WI): In an effort to improve diversity we might be pricing college out of many, many Wisconsin middle income families and their kids.

SCHAPER: Kriebich chairs the legislative committee that must sign off on the plan. And he notes that both the incumbent Democratic governor of Wisconsin and his Republican challenger have signaled that they too are not ready to support such a tuition increase.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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