Wisconsin is rolling out the nation's most expansive guarantee of higher education to students in hopes of raising college aspirations and improving preparedness.
The state's 75,000 eighth-graders can sign the Wisconsin Covenant agreement starting May 10, promising to earn a B average, take courses to prepare for college and be good citizens.
In exchange, the state will guarantee a spot in one of its universities or technical colleges and a combination of work study, loans and scholarships to help low-income students pay their way.
The program is similar to those in Indiana, Oklahoma and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that educators say have been successful in keeping college affordable. All three target low-income students.
8th grade focus is unique
Wisconsin's program is unique because all students can sign up and will be urged at a key age to start preparing themselves for higher education.
"It's especially noteworthy that the focus is on eighth-graders," said Dan Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "That is a remarkably critical year in terms of planting a seed and letting every young adult in Wisconsin recognize they can attend college."
Some say Gov. Jim Doyle, who proposed the program last year, is moving forward without knowing what it will cost or how many students will enroll.
The program does not guarantee students admission into the school of their choice. Doyle's budget includes an additional $10 million annually in financial aid. To qualify, students must meet state and federal requirements. Awards will vary.
"You're raising the expectation that somehow their college education is going to be paid for," said Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "If the bureaucrats drop the ball, that's going to be tough to explain."
One student's high hopes
Among those with high hopes is eighth-grader Eduardo Vasquez. Doyle recently visited his middle school in suburban Madison, telling students: "I don't want anyone to think college is only for rich people."
Vasquez, the son of a construction worker who hopes to become a mechanical engineer, said Doyle's visit made an impression.
"Before this I was really skeptical about going on to college and the program gave me actual confidence in thinking more about it and that it was possible," he said. "This will really help my financial needs."
Hurley said other states would likely broaden programs aimed at low-income students to increase the number of citizens with college degrees and eventually improve their economies.
"You're going to see more public policy measures that aim at a state's entire youth rather than just certain segments of it in order to increase the educational pipeline," he said.