Scholarship Revamp Gaining Momentum Despite Objections from WASB, Rural Schools

Legislation to revamp the state’s Academic Excellence Scholarship program appears to be gaining ground in the state Legislature. This week, a state Senate committee advanced a modified version of Senate Bill 228, while at virtually the same time, a state Assembly committee was holding a hearing on a companion bill, Assembly Bill 314.

Under current law, Academic Excellence Scholarships (AES) are awarded to Wisconsin high school seniors who have the highest grade point average in each public and private high school throughout the State of Wisconsin.

Currently, each high school in the state is eligible to have a scholarship recipient, regardless of its enrollment, although the number of scholarships each high school is eligible for is based on total student enrollment. Schools are organized into six categories based on their enrollment size. The value of the scholarship is currently $2,250 per year, to be applied towards tuition. Half of the scholarship is funded by the state, while the other half is matched by the institution. The scholarships are administered through a state agency, called the Higher Educational Aids Board (HEAB).

The proposal moving through the Legislature would increase the scholarship amount to cover 50 percent of resident student tuition if the student attends a UW System school or a state technical college or 50 percent of UW Madison’s resident tuition if the student attends a private college or university. This would roughly double the value of these scholarships.

The WASB agrees that the scholarship amount has failed to keep pace with tuition increases that have occurred over the years and welcomes this increase.

However, the WASB opposes two controversial changes under the proposal that would: 1) add a requirement that students receive both a minimum composite score of 28 on the ACT college entrance exam and a 3.5 grade point average (GPA); and 2) provide that if a high school has not students who meet these new qualifications, HEAB must reallocate the scholarship to a student from another high school in the same enrollment size category.

The WASB has opposed these changes (see WASB Testimony on AB 314) arguing that there is merit in guaranteeing that a top ranking student in each high school in the state, no matter its enrollment, will receive such a scholarship.

Figures from each of the past two years (2013-14 and 2014-15) indicate that in 30 high schools the highest performing student who took the ACT test received less than a 28 composite score. In roughly two-thirds of these cases (18 of 30 and 20 of 30, respectively), those schools had enrollments of fewer than 500 students. Chances are good that these 18 or 20 schools would have been unrepresented among scholarship recipients, if the amended version of this bill had been in place.

The WASB (as well as the School Administrators Alliance and the Wisconsin Rural Schools Association) argue that in many cases these scholarships provide the encouragement and wherewithal for students in many of our smallest and most rural high schools to successfully continue their education beyond high school and provide an incentive for students in all districts to continue to strive and to aspire to a college education.

Further, the recipients of these scholarships serve as role models for the students who follow them and thus provide a highly visible example to other students in those small districts that it is possible to achieve the goal of a college education by applying oneself no matter what high school you attend or what zip code you reside in.

Proponents of change argue that the current scholarships are not persuading Wisconsin’s highest performing graduates to remain in the state and that more rigor is needed in awarding the scholarship to ensure that they reward excellence, particularly when the top candidates in a school decline the scholarship and it goes to an alternate with lesser academic credentials.


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