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By Dave Umhoefer October 2, 2014

Mary Burke says 41,000 people are on waitlist for financial aid

Democrat Mary Burke thinks the technical-college tuition freeze promised by Gov. Scott Walker could backfire on students.

If state aid to tech schools isn’t boosted at the same time, the candidate for governor argues, a tuition freeze could force elimination of in-demand courses.

Burke doesn’t rule out backing a tuition freeze herself if she wins the Nov. 4, 2014 election. But she says it’s more important to get financial support to students so they can afford to go to school -- such as by increasing state aid to keep college affordable.

"The bigger issue I think is we have 41,000 people right now on the waitlist for financial-based assistance for our tech colleges and universities, and most of those people are on the waitlist for tech colleges," Burke said during a Sept. 22, 2014 interview by Wisconsin Eye.

Were that many students turned down?

To back her claim, Burke’s campaign pointed us to a July 31, 2014 memo prepared by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau for state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse). We also tracked down a later memo from the agency dated Aug. 19, 2014.

Both memos examined Wisconsin Grants, the state-funded program that gives need-based grants to undergraduate students enrolled at least half-time in one of four sectors: UW-System institutions, tech colleges, private and nonprofit schools or tribal colleges. You must be a state resident to receive the money.

All told, the state spent about $106 million in 2013-’14 on the grants.

Though perhaps not as well known as federal financial aid programs, the state program helps a lot of people.

At UW schools and tech schools alone, nearly 57,000 students received grants for the 2013-’14 year.

UW schools receive an allotment, and the tech schools work from a separate pot of money. The average grant for a UW student was $1,775; for tech students, $994.

In the tech system, it’s first-come, first-served for the grants. In the UW System, it’s first-come, first-served until each campus’ allocation is spent.

In the 2013-’14 year, more than 41,000 financial aid applicants who were eligible for state help did not get any due to lack of funds, according to the Fiscal Bureau memo.

More than nine out of 10 of those rejected were tech-school applicants, the memo said.

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The Fiscal Bureau figures are on target, according to John Reinemann, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board, which administers the grants, and Conor Smyth, director of Strategic Partnerships and External Relations for the Wisconsin Technical College System.

Those who did not get a grant are put on a list in case they are still in school if grant money becomes available.

Demand started to exceed supply of grant money during the Great Recession, when more people were returning to school for retraining and diminished incomes meant  many more were eligible to receive aid.

The "unmet need" reached as high as 80,000 in 2009, statistics show. The tech schools alone saw 54,000 applicants get turned down in 2012.

A word about the numbers

There’s somewhat less than meets the eye with the waiting list figures, however.

There’s some potential -- though apparently relatively minor -- overlap between the UW System and the Wisconsin Technical College System figures.

The tech schools put you on a waiting list if you are eligible for one of their awards, and you listed a tech school as the number one choice on your financial aid application.

The Fiscal Bureau points out it’s not known how many of those applicants actually enroll at a tech school. They might have enrolled in a UW or private college instead -- and might even have secured a grant from one of those institutions.

And while some may have done so because they didn’t get a tech-school grant, others went a different route for other reasons.

This situation means the tech school list likely overstates the unmet need to some extent,  Fiscal Bureau analyst Emily Pope wrote. Conversely, the UW list -- which includes only students who actually enrolled in a UW school -- likely understates it because it doesn’t include applicants who may have enrolled there if they had received a UW grant,

So for all those reasons, the 41,000 waitlist figure is the best we have, but not rock solid.

Our rating

Burke said: "We have 41,000 people right now on the waitlist for financial-based assistance for our tech colleges and universities," most of them for tech schools.

There is a large waiting list, and Burke cites a credible source on its size.

But some variations in how the lists are defined by the different institutions mean the number should be treated with some caution.

We rate her claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Mary Burke Wis Eye interview, Sept. 22, 2014

Legislative Fiscal Bureau memos to Sen. Jennifer Shilling, July 31, 2014, and August 19, 2014

State of Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board, "Report of the 2012 Commission on Consolidation and Modernization," Nov. 2012

Interview with John Reinemann, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board (HEAB), Sept. 29, 2014

Interview with Emily Pope, fiscal analyst, Education and Building Program, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Sept. 26, 2014

Interview with Conor Smyth, director of Strategic Partnerships and External Relations for the Wisconsin Technical College System, Sept. 26, 2014

Interview with Stephanie Wilson, spokeswoman for the Burke campaign, Sept. 23, 2014

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Mary Burke says 41,000 people are on waitlist for financial aid

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