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Committee OKs lifting UW out-of-state student cap

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A University of Wisconsin System committee approved a plan to lift UW-Madison's cap on out-of-state students Thursday after the campus' chancellor and system president insisted they need more freedom to attract fresh talent for Wisconsin employers.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank and system President Ray Cross told the Board of Regents' education committee that the number of Wisconsin high school graduates has been declining since 2009, resulting in decreasing college enrollment and exacerbating the state's shortage of skilled workers. Lifting UW-Madison's cap would allow the university to attract more top students from out of state who, they hope, would remain in Wisconsin after graduation.

"If you think we need workers now, just wait 10 years," Cross said. "I believe we must do something. Will this reverse our demographic destiny by itself? No. But it's a start."

The UW System currently caps the number of out-of-state undergraduates at 27.5 percent of the total undergraduate population at each campus. Blank and Cross want to lift that cap at UW-Madison for four academic years beginning in the fall of 2016. As part of the move they pledged to enroll at least 3,600 in-state students in each freshman class.

The plan had originally called for enrolling at least 3,500 in-staters per class, but UW officials amended it this week to 3,600 to better reflect the number of in-state freshmen currently enrolled. The school has 3,617 in-state freshmen right now, said Charlie Hoslet, UW-Madison interim vice chancellor for university relations, after the committee meeting. Minnesota students, who pay Wisconsin in-state tuition rates as part of a reciprocity agreement between the two states, wouldn't be considered in-state students and wouldn't count toward the 3,600 in-state minimum.

Eliminating the cap widens a potentially lucrative revenue stream for UW-Madison as it grapples with its share of a $250 million cut Republican lawmakers imposed on the system in the 2015-17 budget; out-of-staters pay about $20,000 more annually in tuition than Wisconsin residents.

UW officials noted in a memo to the regents that lifting the cap would allow the school to increase revenues and maintain access to services and classes in light of the budget cut. The memo offers no details.

Cross and Blank have insisted the driver for lifting the cap is workforce development, and discussion during Thursday's committee meeting focused entirely on workforce demographics. No one mentioned the higher tuition rates or how much revenue lifting the cap might generate.

A spokesman for Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, a member of the Senate's university committee and an outspoken UW critic, has called the move a cash grab.

UW-Madison's student association has come out against the proposal as well, saying the university can't accommodate more students. As a result, students would face larger classes and reduced academic services.

The association has scoffed at Blank and Cross' workforce-building justification, calling it absurd because most out-of-staters will leave Wisconsin after graduation. UW officials noted in the same memo that mentions the budget cuts that only 15 percent of out-of-state students remained in Wisconsin in the year following graduation in 2014.

Regardless, the committee ultimately approved lifting the cap on a unanimous voice vote. The proposal now goes before the full Board of Regents on Friday for final approval.

"This will be a workforce crisis if we don't do something to deal with this problem now," Regent Mark Tyler said. "I don't think this will solve our problem ... but it takes a bite out of it."

Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, a member of the Assembly's universities committee, issued a statement saying the need to lift the cap demonstrates the damage the Republican budget cuts have done to the system.