Faced with a severe enrollment decline University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee at Washington County over the last ten years and an uncertain future, Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann pulled together a citizen task force five months ago to come up with solutions for the viability of the campus. After months of due diligence, the task force members forged a concept for a community college.
At its heart, the task force members unanimously proposed to merge the failing two-year UWM satellite campus with the successful two-year Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC) four miles away in West Bend.
Sharply declining enrollments on most college campuses across the country, with the exception of elite and flagship universities, has created a reality that competing two-year campuses in a community make little sense.
Heretofore, the technical college had its role in providing occupational education for careers such as nursing, information technology, plumbing and the rest of the trades. Four miles away, for 65 years the two-year UW campus has provided liberal arts education toward baccalaureate degrees for a wide range of professional careers. There were two different educational tracks.
That difference in mission was erased in Wisconsin recently when the technical colleges moved into associate degrees in general education, aka liberal arts. The nearby schools are now in direct competition. The UW Board of Regents heightened the competition by deciding to accept full transfer of tech college credits to UW universities.
Meanwhile, three macro trends have undermined the sustainability of many colleges:
- There has been a declining number of high school graduates for several decades, and those downward demographics look to continue for several decades.
- Many high school students are assembling college credits in high school through advanced placement courses, dual credits taught in conjunction with a college, and online courses. Some have accrued as many as 30 credits, the equivalent of freshman year. That obviously means that the freshman-sophomore colleges have lost half their market.
- The red-hot job market in the United States and particularly in this part of Wisconsin (2.6% unemployment locally) has pulled many high school graduates directly into the ever-higher paying job market. They avoid college debt, the bane of many young people, and they can continue their educations with on-the-job training and subsidized college courses.
These powerful and stubborn trends create a compelling case for the consolidation of educational institutions. The Washington County task force faced these realities and became enamored with the community college model that offers dual tracks.
There is a precedent in Wisconsin for technical colleges that offer both occupational education and baccalaureate credits. Three of the five dual-track technical colleges in Wisconsin have branded themselves as Madison College, Nicolet College out of Rhinelander and Western College out of La Crosse. They serve surrounding counties.
These community colleges are a robust answer for post-high school education for whatever direction a student wants to take his or her career. They can be lively places, the center of community activities.
In contrast, UWM at Washington County has become known as “a ghost town.” UWM dropped athletics. The Theater on the Hill lacks an instructor. The fresh food cafeteria has been replaced with vending machines. Student organizations have disappeared. And most student services have been shifted to the Milwaukee campus.
This is the response to, and partly because of, sharply declining enrollments at the campus. Ten years ago the head count in West Bend was 998; at the end 2022 it was 387.
Long and short, the consolidation with UWM, which has its own enrollment and financial struggles, has not worked well.
So what would a “Moraine College” look like? It would continue to offer a robust occupational track that has been long-established at MPTC in West Bend. Indeed, the local campus will soon see a major expansion in education for manufacturing, automation, and robotics in a new high-tech lab. It has been funded by winning a referendum for bonding.
The second track, a liberal arts or general studies track, would be bolstered by assimilating the student body at the local combined campus.
The task force heard from a variety of students on career/education pathways. Those on the liberal arts track loved their professors and their classes at the UWM-West Bend campus.
For a campus to be successful, it needs to offer more than classes. The task force has recommended a return to athletics, a real cafeteria, cultural opportunities like the theater, student organizations such as a business club, student government and to solid connections with employers through programs like internships and apprenticeships.
In other words, the ideal community college offers a rich menu of student experiences. A lot of education for life, for example, occurs in student unions.
There are a number of approvals needed for the creation of a dual-track college in Washington County. And there would be challenging work to combine the two systems under the umbrella of Moraine Park Technical College. But all the elements needed for a successful new model are readily available.
Everybody in the community should look forward to embracing the new Moraine College (if that’s what it ends up being called).
FYI: The members of the Task Force on Higher Education in Washington County are: co-chairs Paul Stangl and John Torinus; Allen Ericson, Froedtert Health; Craig Wolf, E.H. Wolf & Sons; Tom Hostad, Hartford Area Development Corp.; Dave Stroik, retired architect; Michael Faley, West Bend Mutual Insurance Co.; Christine Fiasca, retired NML Executive; Jen Wimmer, superintendent of West Bend School District; Scott Henke, Washington County treasurer and former Hartford mayor; Kraig Sadownikow, American Construction Services; Amy Campbell, West Bend Mutual Insurance.
Ex-officio members are: Keri Duce, UWM; Peter Rettler, MPTC-WB; and Noel Radomski, retired UW-Madison education professor.