One of the frequent topics that comes up during my visits with alumni, media and business leaders around the state is the time it takes to receive a degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When these questions are asked, I have the opportunity to talk about one of the great success stories we’ve had recently at UW–Madison, the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates (MIU). A new report on the results of the MIU has recently been issued, showing reductions in time-to-degree and improvements in access to large required courses.

First, let me give a quick recap for those of you who may not be familiar with MIU. The program was launched in 2009 to improve the value, quality and affordability of an undergraduate education at UW–Madison and was a major initiative of former Chancellor Biddy Martin.

MIU is funded through an allocation from undergraduate tuition – approximately $40 million of the tuition funds collected from undergraduates is set aside for MIU and is divided equally between instructional support and student services, and funding for need-based financial aid.

There is a concern that students spend more time than they need earning a bachelor’s degree, in part due to the difficulty of getting into large introductory core courses required for graduation. That extra time adds an extra burden of debt when students leave college.

In its first four years, MIU funding contributed  $50.9 million in need-based grants and now provides a total of $20 million annually to thousands of undergraduates for need-based aid, which represents a substantial share of all institutional need-based aid. As of October 2013, a total of 6,742 undergraduates had been awarded MIU-funded need based aid for 2013-14.

There is evidence that the increase in institutional aid from MIU is having a positive effect on low-income students by providing more grant aid to more students and by reducing the loan burden for the lowest income students. Since Fall 2008 (the year before MIU was initiated), the percent of financial need met by institutional grant aid has increased from 15 percent to 22 percent. During the same period, there has been a decline in the share of state gift aid (9.4 percent down to 7.7 percent) and federal gift aid (11 percent down to 7.7 percent). The other change has been a decrease in the percent of financial need met by subsidized loans (39.0 percent down to 34.7 percent).

The allocation of MIU funding for instructional support was made in response to proposals from faculty and staff. Decisions on which proposals to fund were made by a committee of faculty, staff and students. Many projects were designed to ensure that students would get access to the core classes they need to graduate on time. These funds were spent on a variety of initiatives, including expansion and curricular revision in a range of disciplines such as chemistry, history, political science, economics, physiology, and nursing.

Other funds were spent to reorganize and improve academic advising services, so students receive more individual attention to help them achieve their academic goals. The impact of MIU-supported access to many gateway courses and better advising is now being seen in improvements in undergraduate time-to-degree. For bachelor’s degree recipients in 2012-13, the average time to degree was 4.15 years, improved from 4.2 in 2008-09 graduates and 4.29 a decade ago. The most common time to degree continues to be four academic years (just 3.7 calendar years).

The MIU program allocated funding to add faculty and staff teaching resources for large core courses. This has resulted in 77 new faculty positions across 20 departments. Thirty-six academic staff positions in instruction and student services, 24 advisor positions, and approximately 140 TA positions were also added. As of August 2013, 76 of those faculty positions have been filled, representing 16 percent of the 447 new faculty members hired since 2009-10.

The program enabled us to maintain new faculty hiring at about 110 positions per year in 2009-10 and 2010-11, at a time when many of our peers were reducing recruiting due to the recession. As a result, our total faculty count of 2,191 for Fall 2013 is the highest it’s been since Fall 2008.

I encourage you to read the report to get a full picture of the scope of the program and the benefit it has provided to undergraduates. Thank you to the dedicated faculty and staff who have implemented this program, a UW success story that I can talk about proudly wherever I go.