Bucky’s Tuition Promise’s first class graduates from UW-Madison

The first cohort of students to receive four years of free tuition through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Bucky’s Tuition Pledge received their diplomas on Saturday. The donor-funded initiative has grown since its inception in 2018 to include thousands of beneficiaries at the state’s flagship university.

Neurobiology major Tikiri Bandara walked across the stage at UW-Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium to receive his bachelor’s degree this weekend. He told Wisconsin Public Radio that among the audience was his mother, who flew more than 20 hours from Sri Lanka to witness it firsthand.

Bandara said he always planned to go to college and was comparing college financial aid offers. When UW-Madison informed him he was entitled to four years of tuition and free tuition, he compared it to a movie line from ‘The Godfather’ and said, “They made an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“It was one of those factors that you didn’t really want to think about,” Bandara said of the rising cost of college. “But, you know, that was the elephant in the room.”

During his four years at UW-Madison, Bandara said he heard about Wisconsin’s idea, which aims to use university resources and research to benefit all residents of the state.

Outside of academics, Bandara said he was able to put the Wisconsin idea into practice by working as a dispatcher for UW Health’s Med Flight helicopter ambulance service.

And Bandara said he also learned a lot about himself.

“Things that seem impossible aren’t actually impossible,” Bandara said. “Never take no for an answer in terms of pursuing what you love.”

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In February 2018, UW-Madison announcement it would use private donations to provide four years of college education free of tuition for students from families with adjusted gross incomes of $56,000 or less. Bandara was among 796 students enrolled under Bucky’s tuition pledge that year.

Since then, income requirements have been raised to include students from families with incomes of $60,000 or less. The number of participating students has also increased. Helen Faith, director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at UW-Madison, told WPR that 961 students were enrolled through the fall 2021 tuition pledge.

“It’s been so wonderful and rewarding to see our first group of students go through and graduate and hear from them first hand what the impact was on them not having to worry about taking out loans. students, not having to worry about paying for tuition, and not having to worry about the burden the cost of going to college can place on their families,” Faith said.

She said the impetus behind the tuition pledge was to ensure a UW-Madison education was affordable for families at or below the Wisconsin median income.

In August 2020, former Governor and UW System President Tommy Thompson asked state lawmakers to expand the successful UW-Madison program to UW campuses statewide. He asked for a 2.5% budget increase to fund several initiatives, including a “Wisconsin Tuition Promise” almost identical to the Madison program.

The idea was backed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who included it in his 2021-23 state budget proposal. Republican members of the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee rejected the plan.

Faith of UW-Madison said the university is fortunate to have a long list of generous donors who continue to support Bucky’s tuition promise and said she would like to see it replicated in Wisconsin.

“I certainly encourage the development of similar programs,” Faith said. “And it’s really a great honor for us to have this used as a model for other institutions and for the whole state.”

Isabel M. Bourgeois