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Students Counsel

November 2014

By Stephanie Jamelske and Michael Wick

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Engaging in a strategic collaboration with faculty and administrators, students at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire voluntarily support a significant differential tuition amount. The additional revenue provides funding for high-impact educational experiences for all.

When the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire developed its Centennial Plan, 2008–16, its strategic vision called for a focus on enhanced learning that would engage all students in at least one high-impact experience such as study abroad, undergraduate research, and participation in cultural immersion activities. The strategic plan also called for providing these experiences within a four-year graduation window.

While the vision was compelling, continued and dramatic state budget reductions forced the university to look for innovative ways to fund its vision. One such innovation, called the Blugold Commitment (named after the university’s moniker), was student-supported differential tuition, whereby students voluntarily assess themselves additional tuition to support the envisioned high-impact experiences for all students. In exchange, student partners share in the oversight of how the tuition is invested.

Into its fifth year, the program has demonstrated a number of measurable results, including the funding of nearly 50 new faculty and staff positions to support these quality learning initiatives, and a jump in our graduation rate from 18 percent to nearly 30 percent. And, despite a recent tuition freeze imposed by the state, the differential tuition effort remains solid. 

Building on What Went Before

UW–Eau Claire has had a modest differential tuition in place since it pioneered the concept in 1996. Initiated by the university’s Student Senate and approved by the UW System Board of Regents, the university’s differential tuition program provided supplemental funding for academic programs and activities not typically available at a regional comprehensive university. By fall 2009, full-time undergraduate students paid $163 per academic year, generating about $1.5 million in funds annually to support an infrastructure of high-impact experience opportunities. 

In 2008–09, over 38 percent of the funding was allocated to support undergraduate research initiatives, with another 22 percent allocated for first-year experiences aimed at freshman engagement and retention. The remaining funds were allocated to programs in senior “capstone” experiences, internships and practicums, and service learning initiatives. 

This infrastructure, however, was maintained as a set of programs largely treated as “add-ons” above and beyond the core operations of the institution. Each year, staff managing these programs would prepare spending requests that were considered by a student governance panel. Following these presentations, the provost and academic affairs staff presented to the Student Senate an annual spending plan, outlining the funding decisions for review; and the senate issued an annual resolution in support of the plan. 

Because the program relied on annual funding allocations, faculty and staff viewed their efforts in working on these programs as outside the core operation of the university. The annual nature of the funds created two other challenges: (1) it prevented the hiring of permanent staff who could integrate these experiences more tightly with the curriculum and operations of academic departments, and (2) there was little documented evidence of the effectiveness of the programs or the degree of student involvement.

While the reputation of the program remained favorable, the chancellor and provost frequently asked staff to identify ways to improve it. By August 2009, then chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich directed the provost and her staff to identify a unified solution for the two aforementioned challenges, provide resources for the strategic vision, and improve differential tuition.

Seeking to build on the foundation of UW-Eau Claire‘s differential tuition program, Levin-Stankevich then announced plans, based on the earlier staff input, to pursue a substantial increase in differential tuition, called the Blugold Commitment Differential Tuition (BCDT). 

Following that announcement, campus leaders worked closely with elected student leaders and sought input from all students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the university. The proposal called for full integration of the high-impact experiences into the university’s core operation. 

For most of the subsequent academic year, the campus continued to engage in a broad, inclusive, and purposeful dialogue on the BCDT proposal. Campus leaders, constituents, and stakeholders critically examined the justification for the additional revenue, the level necessary, and the types of experiences the added revenue could support. 

The dialogue included broader public policy issues, such as the view of higher education as a public, versus a private, good; the role of state funding; changes in higher education curricula; and the overall benefits of increasing college access for students, families, and the people of Wisconsin.

Because we were low in staff in the business office at the time, and because the differential tuition plan was meant to enhance funding for academic programming, involvement in the planning process became more of a priority for the academic budget office. 

That said, our then chief business officer, David Gessner, was quite involved and invested in the program, leveraging his long-standing reputation of working with students honestly—sharing financial information, establishing the transparency that grew out of his interactions with students, and explaining the overall university budget process.

Ensuring Equal Access 

One issue that concerned many stakeholders was the participation “inequity”—all students were paying the differential tuition, but low-income and first-generation students were not as well represented in the programs and activities funded by the additional tuition. Participation data from the prior 13 years demonstrated that low-income and first-generation students, in particular, were underrepresented in the programs and activities supported by the additional tuition. In addition, there was little consideration given to students’ workloads that might put them at a disadvantage in terms of time to degree. A consensus emerged that we needed to ensure that these high-impact experiences would be available to all. 

The work of George Kuh ( added even more energy to the debate, as Kuh’s research helped demonstrate that these high-impact practices were most effective for exactly the student populations at UW–Eau Claire that were not participating in them.

By the end of that fall semester, the chancellor formally proposed to the student body a partnership that committed the university to provide all undergraduate students—regardless of socioeconomic background—multiple high-impact practices and activities, including faculty/student collaborative research, internships, and intercultural immersion. The partnership also committed that students would be full partners in the strategic and effective allocation of the revenues generated by the new program. 

In February 2010, the UW System Board of Regents voted 14 to 2 to institute the Blugold Commitment, with the following 10-year objectives:

The regents established a new annual differential tuition of $1,200, creating an ongoing annual revenue stream of just over $13 million. Of that, 40 percent is allocated specifically for financial assistance to students with need, and the remaining balance is allocated for high-impact programming. The fee increase was to be implemented in phases over four years, beginning with an increase of $300 ($150 per semester) in fall 2010. 

All-in Governance

Students share governance in the way resources are invested and in monitoring the programmatic outcomes. The Student Senate developed and enacted the program bylaws in conjunction with academic affairs. We have found that the more we’ve worked in collaboration with students, the better this program has become. We’ve met colleagues who note that we’ve really allowed the students to be the primary voice—and we say, “Absolutely, we wouldn’t do it any other way,” to attain this level of student engagement. We firmly believe the program is the better for it.

While other institutions have approved similar tuition increases, the students at those campuses may not see a connection between the additional money and visible results. Even with our early differential tuition program, students perceived that the fee was simply absorbed into the complexity of the overall university budget. So, when setting out to seek the increase, we made the commitment that in exchange for asking for a substantial increase to the fee, the university administration was fully committed to more directly engaging students in the process of how those dollars are invested. 

Focused funding. Under the Blugold Commitment Differential Tuition (BCDT), funds are allocated in two areas, financial assistance and programming.

Up to 3 percent of the total financial aid pool can be used for the Blugold special grant, a one-time award, made in case-by-case decisions, to help students experiencing extraordinary circumstances that would otherwise affect the student’s ability to succeed in his or her studies.

Finally, the Blugold study abroad grant is based on a set allocation of $120,000 made available annually to provide access to study abroad experiences for undergraduate students with need. 

During academic year 2013–14, more than one third of our undergraduate students received grant funding from these three programs.

The Provost’s Initiative is allowed up to 25 percent of the programming funds to address three specific areas of critical academic need: high-demand academic programs, the improvement and expansion of student advising, and support for improvements in UW–Eau Claire’s liberal education core.

The balance of the funds identified for general purposes are allocated through a competitive proposal process for projects that support the 10-year objectives. 

The level of direct student involvement in funding decisions is the key to making the Blugold Commitment unique; we are not aware of a similar model that asks undergraduate students for direct investment in the undergraduate enterprise in exchange for a majority decision-making role in the investment and use of those funds.

Collaborating on the review process. Working with input from Student Senate leadership, academic affairs issues an annual call for proposals, with criteria specific to each call. Faculty, staff, and students across campus develop proposals and submit them through their division administration. Administrators review and rank proposals and forward them to academic affairs, where the staff in that office manages the administrative task of duplication and dissemination of the materials to the review committees.

Proposals then are reviewed by categorical review committees—made up of UW–Eau Claire faculty, staff, and students, with majority representation from students. Membership on the committee is open to all students, but the Student Senate strives to ensure that there is at least one student senator on each committee. Each categorical review committee evaluates proposals and makes recommendations for funding support based on the merits of the proposal; the information provided in the administrative review; and alignment of the position, program, or project with the 10-year objectives of the Blugold Commitment. 

The next step is funding recommendations. The proposals and all proceeding reviews are then forwarded to the Funding Analysis Committee, comprised of three staff members from academic affairs and four representatives of Student Senate leadership. The committee reviews the proposals and makes funding recommendations based on input gathered during the review phases and develops an overall spending plan for the Blugold Commitment that reflects the highest priority proposals and recommendations, meets the objectives of the Blugold Commitment, and is cohesive with the overall university mission. 

The recommended spending plan is then forwarded as a bill for approval by the Student Senate. The bill requires a simple affirmative majority vote. Once affirmed, the spending plan is then sent to the chancellor for final approval.

Implementing Programmatic Funding 2010 to Present

To transition from a program built on $1.5 million for annual funding decisions to a program with more than $13 million—and the opportunity for continuous funding—we developed a tiered and incremental approach to award funding at three levels.

Continuous appropriation. We took this approach only for projects and programs previously funded for multiple years under the earlier differential tuition program. The previous process had identified a small set of established programs that were funded annually and for which the university had become well known. For these programs, we implemented the highest-commitment tier to offer the opportunity for continuous appropriation. It wasn’t automatic; program managers had to compete in the proposal process and were asked to evaluate their success, be honest about their areas in need of improvement, and outline plans for expanded and continued student impact in the future. 

Multiyear funding. This category included funds for “proof of concept” initiatives for up to three years, meaning programs and projects that had been funded before but were still in development. The tier with this second level of commitment was designed for programs that may or may not have had differential tuition funding in the past. While these programs lacked a lengthy record of results, program managers were asked to provide sufficient evidence to support the viability of the particular program and its utility in providing high-impact experiences to students. To maintain annual funding after the three-year window, project managers must demonstrate each year their progress in achieving the stated program outcomes. 

One-time funding. We established the third funding tier for new programs that require only funds for a discrete project. For example, we approved funds for faculty time used to develop a degree program available at our campus, so UW–Eau Claire students no longer need to transfer to another campus to complete their undergraduate degree. 

Reassuring Results 

Continuous improvement is a critical element of the Blugold Commitment process. All projects are assessed on a staggered schedule to measure achievement of the project-specific objectives. UW–Eau Claire has invested in programs and initiatives designed to deliver high-impact learning experiences to all our undergraduate students. Of our 2013–14 graduates, just over 80 percent of the students had experienced at least one of the three types of high-impact programs targeted by the Blugold Commitment: study abroad, intercultural immersion, or internships. This compares to roughly 60 percent in the previous year. 

A second primary objective of the Blugold Commitment was an improved four-year graduation rate accomplished by better student advising and increased integration of the high-impact practices into the student’s selected major. Similar progress has been made on this objective. In 2009, UW–Eau Claire had a four-year graduation rate of just over 18 percent (in context, our six-year graduation rate was just over 60 percent); at the end of 2013–14, our four-year graduation rate has risen to more than 30 percent. 

Funding from the Blugold Commitment has supported programs in a number of areas. 

Student advising. Each of our four colleges has implemented advising centers staffed by professionals who focus on a holistic view of planning that incorporates the importance of graduating in four years with the scheduling of high-impact experiences as part of the four-year plan. 

Cultural immersion programs. Our university is located in the Midwest, with a fairly homogeneous population. Through data collected from alumni, we know that a lack of exposure to diversity makes our graduates less competitive among employers, when compared to college graduates from more diverse regions. That led us to establishing goals for increasing the number of students who participate in cultural immersion experiences, ensuring access to these expensive experiences, and ensuring that international experiences do not delay time to graduation.

In response, our faculty developed three programs (two international and one domestic) that are designed to give all students exposure to more diversity than our own campus provides.

Since this program’s inception, 45 projects have involved almost 150 students and 50 faculty in travel to 28 counties to conduct scholarly projects. In addition, this program was recently awarded the 2014 Andrew Heiskell Award for Internationalizing the Campus from the Institute of International Education. 

For example, nursing students travel to South Dakota, where they assist with tribal health care through clinical rotations at Rosebud Native American Reservation. In addition, we were able to expand the offerings of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a program in which students have the opportunity to spend their winter or spring break on a guided tour of the South, visiting sites of historic importance to the U.S. civil rights movement. This popular program had been funded under the initial differential program and to date has served more than 1,000 students. 

Faculty-student collaborative research. UW–Eau Claire is designated as the Center of Excellence in Undergraduate Faculty/Student Collaborative Research within the University of Wisconsin System. This designation came about largely because of the original differential tuition back in the 1990s. 

With the added resources from the Blugold Commitment, faculty/student collaborative research has grown to include more than 800 undergraduate students each year. Nearly all projects result in a poster presentation, during the university’s annual Research Day, but many projects result in our students presenting their work at national conferences and publishing in well-respected professional journals. For example, Skye Doering, a UW–Eau Claire senior chemistry and biology major, was the lead author of an article in the Journal of Chemical Physics describing his research with faculty member James Boulter. 

Commensurate Increases in Staffing

None of these outcomes is possible without staff. One of the significant benefits of the differential tuition initiative is the ability to fund permanent faculty and staff positions. Investing full-time positions is a critical step in moving the high-impact experiences from “add-ons” activities to core experiences deeply integrated with our academic program array. 

Faculty positions. Through the proposal process and the Provost’s Initiative we’ve added approximately 27 full-time equivalent faculty members. In modern budget times, this is an astonishing accomplishment. These faculty positions provide much-needed personnel for the academic departments to manage the workload associated with the high-impact experiences, while at the same time building additional teaching, research, and advising capacity. At the same time, we deliberately did not use funds to shore up departments or activities that were affected by previous budget cuts. Rather, we looked at opportunities to increase overall institutional capacity. 

The added tuition allowed us to broaden the variety of programs and the kinds of people who could participate. For example, prior to Blugold Commitment, departments might fund an “overload” for a faculty member to oversee an undergraduate internship program. Not surprisingly, the added workload of building and maintaining a vibrant internship program frequently became secondary to the primary tasks of that faculty member’s work. With the addition of a position to the department, that faculty member now has up to half-time reassignment for running a top-quality internship program.  This integrated approach has proven much more effective than the “overload” approach. 

Program support staff. One of the often-overlooked consequences of delivering high-impact experiences is the administrative support necessary to make them happen. With Blugold Commitment funding, we have been able to add nearly 25 new support staff positions to assist in arranging and overseeing high-impact experiences and other impactful campus initiatives. 

For example, in addition to the professional advisers added in the four colleges, we have also added advising capacity specifically in areas of student retention and support programs, such as the expanded career development advising for sophomores, comprehensive freshmen connection programming, and expanded tutoring programs. We have also been mindful of the behind-the-scenes workload, by adding a full-time immersion coordinator and staff in financial aid, technology services, and business operations—in recognition of the increased loads in those offices.  

Weathering the Tuition Freeze 

As mentioned earlier, despite the proven effectiveness of our efforts, tuition for the schools of the University of Wisconsin System, including differential tuition, is currently frozen at the 2012–13 level. This means that the final installment of $300 has been suspended, and undergraduate students pay $900 in Blugold Commitment Differential Tuition and $163 in legacy differential tuition per academic year. Blugold Commitment financial aid remains set at the same level as 2012–13. 

Unfortunately, this resulted in an indefinite suspension of the final planned phase of another $3 million in similar investments. In response to this unexpected freeze, then interim chancellor Gilles Bousquet announced to the campus a consultative process with student leaders, academic affairs, and others to determine the potential programmatic impacts on Blugold Commitment plans for the coming year. 

In operational terms, the suspension of the final $300 increase meant that funds were planned but not yet spent. That amount combined with some reallocation among the programs already funded,  resulted in a workable plan with minimal disruptions. While this isn’t ideal, we are still able to offer our students a fuller undergraduate experience. As of now, we are still unsure whether the freeze will continue indefinitely, as well as how the reduced funding will influence our ability to make meaningful progress on those 10-year goals.

Energized Effort

None of this would have been possible without student support. And that support has grown as the university’s leadership continues to (1) educate students about what it takes to deliver education, (2) allow them to see the measurable effect of this kind of direct investment made possible through public policy, and (3) show students that in spite of all the financial challenges, they—and we—can truly change outcomes and make a huge difference for our students.

Our history of engaging students in their own education, discussing what we all want to achieve, and how we do that within the financial atmosphere of the state is all meant to ensure that students continue to achieve the best education and preparation for the future. At the very core, we all want to retain the interaction of faculty and students that inspires the magic that takes place with teaching and learning. While it’s true that students can select another university that best fulfills their goals and values in life, how often do they get a chance to take part in envisioning and building the institution they really want?

STEPHANIE JAMELSKE is budget officer for academic affairs and MICHAEL WICK is associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.


Related Topics

One of the significant benefits of the differential tuition initiative is the ability to fund permanent faculty and staff positions.

We developed a tiered and incremental approach to award funding at three levels.

The proposal called for full integration of the high-impact experiences into the university’s core operation.