Two-year UW colleges in big trouble

Something has gone terribly wrong with the consolidation of the former UW College System and its 13 campuses into the comprehensive UW 4-6 year degree colleges.

These were thriving community colleges 10-20 years ago with more than 12,000 students. At a time when community colleges are being extolled by national education leaders as a way forward for under-educated people, the collective student body at those campuses has fallen to fewer than 6,000.

Many factors are causing the fall-off:

  • Fewer 18-year olds coming out of high school every year, the result of ever-lower birth rates over a long term.
  • The calling of the market where jobs are plentiful and better paid. Why take on high student debt to land good jobs?
  • Online courses and degrees proliferating, both from Wisconsin colleges, but from competitors from all over the world.
  • The generally rising level of tuition, despite some occasional freezes.

An example of how hard the hit has been is the steep drop at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Washington County. That beautiful two-year campus once educated 1100 students. Its enrollment dropped from 744 in 2018 when consolidation took place to 387 in 2016. The UW campus in Waukesha has dropped from 1767 in 2018 to 1049 today. That is not a pretty picture at a time when there is an extreme shortage of skilled workers. The once bustling West Bend campus is half a ghost town.

Several of the 13 colleges are below 300 students. Richland Center is at 75.

What to do about it?

Both Washington County and Waukesha County have every reason to be especially concerned. They own the campuses. Yet there has been little discussion or solutions offered at the county level.

Nor has state-level government shown any real concern. I have yet to see any legislator offer a concern or solution. It’s like the colleges in their backyards have dropped into a black hole.

As enrollment started to decline, the initial response of UW leaders was consolidation of the 13 campuses into regional groupings. That mash-up eliminated local deans, the sparkplugs of the campuses. It also cut their athletic programs, which young people loved.

The second consolidation into the four-year campuses wiped out the “university centers” concept, which delivered four-year degrees through distance learning on the two-year campuses. Zero community dialogue preceded those top-down decisions.

There has been some concern of late on the part of UWM Chancellor Mark Mone. A team of his people is looking at ways to improve recruiting for UWM’s main campus, as well as its two satellite campuses in Waukesha and West Bend.

A low-budget nine-credit introduction to college is among the ideas that may be tried. Though under-funded, it’s worth a shot.

One positive move is the ramp-up of dual enrollment. High school students can gain credits at the UW satellite campuses toward two-year associate and four-year baccalaureate degrees. UW-Green Bay has used a dual enrollment program called Rising Phoenix to increase enrollment at its three satellites in Manitowoc, Marinette and Sheboygan.

But shouldn’t we as a state be thinking bigger? It’s been 51 years since the last strategic examination of the UW System as a whole. A good number of leaders have called for just such a fresh look at a high level. Among them are former Gov. Tommy Thompson who has just completed 20 months as interim UW System president and state Sen. Roger Roth of Appleton, head of the Senate Committee on Education and the University and a candidate for lieutenant governor next fall.

But the legislature has been unmoved, preferring to spend its time in a two-party war over voting rights and a non-existent “stolen election.”

Here are two concepts a blue ribbon task force could entertain to help students get off to a good start while living at home to save money:

  • As numerous national politicians and educators have proposed, make tuition at the two-year colleges free. That would make them a big draw. It would also bolster the four-year universities when the two-year grads move on to finish their baccalaureates.
  • Combine the 13 colleges with the Wisconsin Technical College System, which has also experienced sharp drops in enrollment. Some of the tech college campuses are virtually next door.

Many issues would have to be worked out. To start with, they have different tax bases of support. Again, though, good minds from across the state could figure out a concept for a hometown educational operation with several tracks: the humanities, STEM and technical education aimed sharply at available jobs. Some combination of the three tracks may be the best two-year recipe for young people moving into higher education.

We can’t let the 13 UW college campuses go to waste in an era when more education is a strategic imperative, not less. To that end, chancellor Mone has called for a citizens’ round table at the West Bend campus on Wednesday, April 27 from 8:00 am to 10:00 am. Finally, the plight of the two-year campuses is getting the attention they deserve.

The right UW leaders will be there: Mike Falbo, a former regent and interim UW System president, Simon Bronner, dean of the West Bend and Waukesha campuses and Mone. Be there and be prepared to speak your opinions.

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