After graduating from Milwaukee’s Messmer High School, Jacob Walton went an hour west to attend UW-Whitewater in 2006.
As a Black, first-generation college graduate, he says he faced financial obstacles while in school. Yet his eligibility for the UW System’s Lawton Undergraduate Minority Retention Grant Program helped him stay in school. He graduated from Whitewater in 2011 with degrees in communications and social work. He says the grant money also helped him study abroad, traveling to both Brazil and Ghana while in school.
The Lawton grant program and its counterpart, the Higher Education Aid Board’s (HEAB) Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant Program (MURG) — which is available to students at Wisconsin’s technical colleges and private universities — were created “to reduce the financial burden which causes many minority students to leave school,” according to Democratic Gov. Tony Earl’s 1985 budget proposal.
“It helped me stay at UW-Whitewater,” Walton says of the grant. “If I didn’t have that assistance, I would not have graduated.”
Since the mid-1980s, these grants have been available to Black, Hispanic, Native American and Southeast Asians of Vietnamese, Cambodian or Laotian descent after their first year of school. Grants are given based on financial need and do not exceed $2,500.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in late June to end affirmative action programs in college admissions, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) tweeted that legislative Republicans were going to start combing through the state’s statutes looking for programs that aim to help specific racial groups.
“We are reviewing the decision and will introduce legislation to correct the discriminatory laws on the books and pass repeals in the fall,” Vos wrote in a quote tweet about the MURG program. A spokesperson for Vos did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) says Republicans are trying to spin the tale that this money is going to undeserving students. Instead, she says, programs like the MURG give minority students equal access to opportunities that students from wealthier — and whiter — parts of the state take for granted.
“The Republicans are trying to spin a narrative that’s been as old as the test of time: ‘these people are trying to get something they don’t deserve,’” Myers says. “The laziness narrative does not work for me when it comes to the Black community. The Black community has worked for free to build up everyone else. What individuals need and desire is access to opportunity. I need the same access and opportunity to become a machinist at a Milwaukee high school [as] at Brookfield East.”
Any Republican proposals to end these grant programs are likely to be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. Nevertheless, Vos’ comments come as Republicans are becoming more openly hostile to public and private efforts to level the playing field for historically disadvantaged groups.
The nationwide debate over affirmative action has frequently focused on the country’s most elite higher education institutions. The case that ultimately ended affirmative action was fought over the rate at which Asian Americans are accepted to Harvard.
Yet as Wisconsin’s Republican legislators respond to the court’s decision, the effects of their proposed policy changes won’t be felt hardest by students at elite Ivy League universities. Instead, the effect will largely be felt by Black students attending the state’s technical colleges.
An Examiner analysis of HEAB data found that in all but one school year since 2011, the largest proportion of money allocated through the MURG program went to Black students at Milwaukee Area Technical College. During the 2021-22 school year, Milwaukee Tech students received the second highest proportion, trailing only students at Madison Area Technical College.
“We see a large amount of students from the MPS schools that are looking for a way out, they don’t have the means to go to a traditional four-year college, they’re looking for a good family supporting job,” says Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades, AFL-CIO. “Those students, like many, are looking for a pathway to a different life. These scholarships can greatly enhance a person allowing them to take classes at MATC. Put them in a better position to qualify for the trades. It makes no sense to limit that.”
Annually, the grant program provides an average of $815,000 to more than 800 students across the state. The number of students and amounts can vary widely. According to the program’s 2021-22 annual report, three students at Beloit College received a combined total of $4,218 while 117 students at Milwaukee Tech received a combined total of $97,500.
Milwaukee Tech is the state’s largest technical college, serving a population that is 56% students of color. According to MATC data, the school’s total retention rate — meaning the proportion of students who graduate or return the following semester — is 48%. For Black students at MATC, the retention rate is 37%.
But statewide, recipients of the MURG are much likelier to return to school. Over the last decade, an average of 78% of grant recipients have graduated or returned the next semester. Even in the pandemic disrupted 2019-20 school year, more than 66% of grant recipients returned.
In addition to the technical college system, students at Milwaukee-area private universities regularly receive a large portion of the MURG funds. Alverno College, Cardinal Stritch University and Marquette University are all regularly among the five schools whose students receive the most money through the program.
In the last decade, only once were there fewer than four Milwaukee-area schools in the top five.
“When you think about the student population that’s at Alverno, it is overwhelmingly Hispanic, predominantly female,” Myers says. “They produce a lot of teachers and nurses, two professions we need and have a shortage of. Cardinal Stritch, even though they’re closing, they had a specific niche they were catering to. This would greatly impact their student population.”
After going back to school in 2013 to receive his master’s degree, Jacob Walton worked at Cardinal Stritch as an academic advisor for the non-traditional students in the school’s College of Business and Management. While there, he often helped older students juggling work and family responsibilities along with a full university course load access funding through the grant program.
“Because of families and other responsibilities it’s often more difficult to maintain a full college load,” he says. “The ability to meet people where they are and help them with financial assistance, I’ve seen so many students have a financial situation, and more often than not, there was some type of remedy we could offer through this grant.”
Myers says that attacks on these programs miss the fact that this money often goes to older students choosing to go back to school as a way to better provide for their family.
“A lot of times these are not kids who are 18 years old coming out of high school,” she says. “A large majority of these students are parents, older students, who have realized what they want to do and are going to a school like MATC in evening classes, skill-based classes. They’re already working but are also going to school. It’s not like a traditional college campus. These are individuals who have lived life, have realized what it is they want to do and are trying to realize that. This particular grant is geared to these folks that have figured it out further down the road.”
Republicans argue that their problem isn’t with programs aimed at helping students stay in school or helping older people go back to school, but that programs like these are against the law because they single out specific groups.
“Providing assistance to students in financial need is fine. But doing so on a racially discriminatory basis is not,” says Pat Garrett, communications director for the right-wing legal advocacy organization the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL).
In 2021, WILL sued the HEAB over the grant program, seeking to have the program declared illegal for singling out specific groups on behalf of a biracial couple whose son didn’t qualify for the grant. Last year, a Jefferson County judge dismissed the suit.
“The grant program discriminates against many different races, including many students from Asia and the Middle East,” Garrett continues. “Our Constitution protects the right of individuals and not the allocation of benefits among competing racial and ethnic groups. The Supreme Court has made clear that such discrimination is illegal. If Wisconsin wants to help disadvantaged students, it must do so without regard to race.”
Democrats say Republicans are talking out of both sides of their mouth on this issue when they argue these types of programs can’t single out certain races while refusing to fund race-neutral educational aid programs. Earlier this year, legislative Republicans killed a proposal to extend statewide UW-Madison’s “tuition promise” program, which covers the cost of tuition and fees for students from families making under $65,000 per year.
“It seems like Robin Vos doesn’t want anyone in Wisconsin to succeed in any higher education,” Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) says. “He is waging relentless culture wars rather than using his power to try to help everyone in our state succeed.”
Roys notes that after the 2008 Great Recession, the average white American family had ten times the net worth as the average Black American family. This difference, along with the loss of the family-supporting manufacturing jobs that many Black Milwaukeeans relied on for decades, disproportionate rates of incarceration, disparities in school funding and access to services, can make it harder for students to finish their degrees, she says.
“For the average student, who doesn’t have family resources to fall back on, it’s going to be much harder for them to complete higher education because they’re going to have to be supporting themselves and taking time off to work,” Roys says. “Robin Vos got in the way of the UW System expanding the tuition promise, that’s a race-neutral program that would help everyone in the state who isn’t wealthy, whose parents are very middle class; he didn’t like that either.”
Myers says the grant program is an important piece of the puzzle for people working to build a better future for Milwaukee.
“If you don’t grow your own and try to invest in your own community, you have to attract people from outside,” she says. “You get people with a homegrown relationship, they want to be educated here, they want to give back to the community they come from. These grants are something that help them do that and do it in an impactful way.”
Walton says he recognizes that he himself followed that path, intentionally choosing to stay in Milwaukee and work supporting young people as a way to give back to the mentors he had in his life.
“When I first completed my masters program I considered moving to Houston and Atlanta,” he says. “My mother’s an educator here in Milwaukee, I knew I wanted to serve the Milwaukee community and I wanted to pay it back. I knew that because I received those gifts of mentorship, support, of service, I wanted to do the same for others in my community that look like me.”
Walton’s current job with Big Step involves connecting Milwaukee-area students to apprenticeship programs in the trades, and often sending them to MATC to take classes. He says he hopes they’ll continue to be eligible for funds through the grant program.
Allowing students to stay close to home while gaining valuable skills allows Milwaukee to retain its young people, he says.
“When I reflect on the individuals who are leaders in the community, most of them come from the community they’re serving,” Walton says, adding that he isn’t surprised that most of the grant money gets concentrated around Milwaukee.
Walton says that if Vos, or anyone, looked at the people leading Milwaukee today, in local government, law, education and workforce development, they’d see people who grew up in the area and returned to give back to their community — even if they needed some support to get there.
“A lot of those leaders needed assistance getting there, and to remove that assistance would be a barrier,” he says. “If we want a strong Milwaukee or a strong Wisconsin, we don’t want to remove these programs.”
In the HEAB’s annual report on the grant program, the board surveys recipients on their post-graduation plans. Since 2011, an average of 92% of surveyed students said they planned to remain in Wisconsin.
Last year, 97% of the students said they planned to stay.
by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
July 27, 2023
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