Madison Initiative for Undergraduates shows promise and progress

UW-Madison students are beginning to reap the rewards of a campus-wide effort to boost the value, quality and affordability of an undergraduate education made possible by the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates.

The initiative uses a supplemental tuition charge to invest in the quality of the undergraduate experience while vastly expanding the pool of need-based aid available for UW-Madison students and their families.

In its second full year, the initiative’s results are now impacting undergrads across the campus.

While other public universities are struggling to maintain faculty strength, UW-Madison is hiring faculty members to fulfill the promise of the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates to make key classes more available and to give undergraduates greater exposure to tenure-track faculty.

To date, 54.5 new faculty positions have been authorized for hiring, and 11 new faculty were in the classroom as the fall semester began, opening up new seats in high-demand classes.

The initiative opens the door to advancements in student advising services, improvements in the curriculum, and expansion of high-impact learning programs, such as the university’s popular First-Year Interest Groups, or FIGs. The Department of Psychology is revamping its curriculum and is placing a new emphasis on undergraduate research opportunities.

Altogether, 35 projects were funded in the first two rounds of the initiative and third-round proposals are being sought this fall.

The proposals are reviewed by both an Associated Students of Madison-appointed Student Board and the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates Oversight Committee, which is composed of students, faculty, staff and administrators.

The promise of the initiative to provide need-based aid and waive the added tuition charges for low- and middle-income students is also being realized.

About $5.1 million in need-based financial aid from the initiative lifted the total amount of institutional need-based aid to $12.9 million in the initiative’s first year. A major push is underway, called the Great People Scholarship Campaign, to leverage additional private funding for additional need-based aid.

Additionally, more than 6,000 undergraduates were held harmless from the added tuition charge in 2009-10, based on their families’ income levels.

Chancellor Biddy Martin, whose administration championed the initiative, says the effort clearly shows the benefits that can be realized when the campus achieves administrative flexibility in key areas, including tuition.

“We are enriching the undergraduate experience, removing the barriers to an affordable university education, preserving the value of the degree, and doing all of it in a way that is accountable to the campus and the public,” says Martin. “We have been successful in targeting specific needs and addressing them creatively through the initiative.”

The chancellor adds: “It’s hard to overstate the importance of need-based aid to Wisconsin and its competitive future. This initiative provides aid at a time when students’ unmet financial need is growing.”

Susan Fischer, the university’s director of student financial aid, says the initiative has built a steadier base of need-based aid.

“For years, UW-Madison has trailed the Big Ten in discretionary need-based grant aid,” Fischer says. “This initiative is making all the difference by building a strong, more reliable pool of funds with which to provide access to students to a life-changing university education.”

Funding from the initiative helped expand the FIG program to 900 students in 45 groups, an increase of 50 percent compared with fall 2009.

A FIG is a learning community of about 20 students enrolled in a cluster of three classes linked by a common theme. The main seminar course of each FIG is taught by a faculty member who integrates the content of the classes.

FIG students often create study groups that not only allow for the sharing of ideas and insights, but also lead to academic success. Generally, students in FIGs earn higher GPAs than their peers who are not enrolled in FIGs.

“Students told us they valued the FIG experience and urged us to expand them,” says Aaron Brower, UW-Madison’s vice provost for teaching and learning. “This approach helps students academically, socially and develop a new world view.”

Adam Sheka, a senior majoring in medical microbiology and immunology, served on the initiative’s Oversight Board last year. This year, he will chair the student board as well.

Sheka, from Little Suamico, Wis., says the initiative is driven by student needs and targets high-impact areas.

“There’s so much need on campus,” he says. “You have to look at it holistically and for how it will benefit students. Students should be happy with how it’s going.”

Brower says the added flexibility provided through the initiative encourages the campus to address the most pressing educational needs. For example, the four new faculty members authorized in the Department of Psychology – which has one of the most sought-after undergraduate majors on campus – enabled the department to completely reorganize its curriculum.

“Because of the initiative, we were able to zero in on the areas of greatest need and act quickly and thoughtfully to make sure that undergraduates are being served more effectively with high-impact education,” Brower says.

Provost Paul M. DeLuca Jr. adds that the initiative has sparked exciting new ways of looking at undergraduate education.

“This initiative is an opportunity to improve and transform the educational experience for undergraduates. We are particularly interested in encouraging high impact, out-of-the-box thinking that cuts across disciplinary boundaries,” he says.

Sheka says the initiative has had another important and far-reaching side effect.

“One of the unexpected benefits of the Madison Initiative is the discussion it’s prompted focusing on education,” he says. “There’s a broad-based dialog about whether we are being innovative, what we are teaching and whether we can improve.”

Brower says that conversation is building momentum and making a difference for undergraduates.

“The initiative has opened new and exciting avenues for students, faculty and staff to work together to build a stronger undergraduate experience, and therefore helping to make our graduates more competitive in a global marketplace,” Brower says.