Two-year UW colleges in jeopardy

Sadly, enrollments at the 13 former UW two-year colleges have been in free-fall since their recent merger with seven four-year UW universities.

Prior to the consolidations, the associate degree campuses provided nearby education to 9700 students looking to get their collegiate experiences in a less expensive and intimate setting. That enrollment dropped precipitously by 26% from 2018 to 2019.

The UW System (UWS) also saw enrollment challenges, but dropped by only 2.6%. That includes UW Madison, which gained 2%. With the flagship school subtracted from the totals, the other 12 comprehensive campuses lost 4%.

The numbers talk. Clearly, the two-year colleges have taken by far the biggest hit. (Some may not survive the fall-off.)

As an example, the Waukesha campus dropped from 1767 students in 2018 to 1541 in 2019. West Bend dropped from 744 to 605; its high point was more than 1000.

Two campuses are now below 200, with Richland Center at 155 and Marinette at 198. New models for delivering education will have to be developed for them to make it.

Many factors go into the enrollment declines of the last decade, like smaller cohorts of 18-year-olds each year and the strong jobs economy.

Nevertheless, the enrollment collapses at the colleges point to the reality that System bungled the consolidation. As it combined the colleges in stages over the last decade, back-shop efficiency was emphasized, while recruitment and marketing withered.
Popular and engaged local deans were axed and faceless regional bureaucrats took their place. The deans had always been the primary recruiters from local high schools. They were the faces on the places.

Recently, UWS has moved to rectify that mistake and is adding back leadership to the two-year campuses.

The 13 two-year campuses have been jewels in their communities. Knowing their importance to parents and their young people, community leaders have stepped up for decades to fund the physical facilities for the local campuses. (At the 13 four-year campuses, the physical plants are paid for by state taxes, along with some donations.)

The UW colleges, whose collective enrollment was once greater than that of all but five of the four-year campuses, have offered many benefits to their communities and to the state, including:

• A cost-effective education for freshmen and sophomores. Tuition was frozen after a 2006 commission on the future of the two-year colleges made that recommendation. Students could avoid room and board costs by living at home.
• Students can find accessible local jobs.
• The campuses add greatly to the social and cultural lives of their communities.
• Students are taught mainly by professors with PhDs, versus teaching assistants for many classes at the four-year campuses.
• Classes are smaller at the former colleges, allowing for more engagement between student and professor.
• State taxpayers don’t foot the bill for the two-year buildings and facilities.
• The colleges serve as excellent feeder schools for the four-year campuses. Their transfer graduates do better in their junior and senior years than most students from other sources. They have a solid grounding for the last two years.
• The students add to the local work force.
• There is no better economic development for community than to be home to a university campus. Their presence makes it easier for local businesses to recruit employees from elsewhere.
• The 13 campuses started to deliver four-year degrees from the UW universities, but that decentralized “university center” initiative is being de-emphasized.

As UW System has become more Madison-centric, it has lost sight of the “Wisconsin Idea” that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. UW Extension, for example, is now largely a Madison entity, nearly invisible out-state.

That loss of vision shows in the indifferent treatment of the two-year colleges. Their uncertain future of the two-year is emblematic of other serious issues facing the next UWS president, soon-to-be named.

The UWS search committee is asking for input. Here’s mine: the next UWS leader needs to be a turn-around executive, not a product of the current organization. The next president will have to move fast to pull together a strategic plan that serves the whole state.

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