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The Wisconsin Covenant: Toward a Truly Merit-Based System of Higher Education


Douglas Harris (BIO)

Associate Professor, Department of Educational Policy Studies and La Follette School of Public Affairs
Faculty Affiliate, WISCAPE
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Sara Goldrick-Rab (BIO)
Associate Professor, Department of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology
Senior Scholar, WISCAPE
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Governor Doyle recently proposed the Wisconsin Covenant to make college more accessible to low-income residents. This policy brief explains why this is an important goal and how the proposal should be designed to best achieve its objectives—and at a reasonable cost.

The reality of higher education in Wisconsin is that high school graduates from low-income families are much less likely to attend college even when they have the same academic qualifications as wealthier students. This has significant consequences for those students and their families and, just as importantly, reduces the quality of life for the entire state. Moreover, this reality conflicts with the notion that educational access should be based on merit rather than family wealth.

We propose three principles for designing the Covenant policy to address the current system’s problems. The Covenant should: (a) provide scholarships based on merit and financial need; (b) offer grant aid—not loans—that covers tuition, fees, and some living expenses; and (c) include significant academic and application support to help ensure that students can meet the Covenant challenge.


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