Chump change offered for closed UW colleges

As one example of political leaders in Wisconsin nibbling around the edges of major public policy challenges, the university president, the legislative leaders and the governor threw some chump change at the communities that have hosted two-year UW colleges for more than 50 years.

They agreed to a new law that bestows $2 million to salvage something from the impending closure of those colleges across the state. Those campuses were the epitome of the “Wisconsin Idea,” a long-held philosophy that stated the boundaries of the University of Wisconsin are the boundaries of the state.

That concept is on its death bed. Under the leadership of UW President Jay Rothman (left), five of the 13 colleges are in the process of being shut down, and the other eight are in the cross hairs of Rothman, legislative leaders and Gov. Evers. They all took the easy way out in the face of declining enrollments at the two-year college level, whether at the 13 liberal arts campuses or the 16 Wisconsin technical colleges.

The obvious answer for anyone who took a hard and deep look at the future of two-year colleges — as took place in 2023 under a Washington County task force of about 20 of the best and brightest leaders as either staff or task force members, was consolidation. The compelling conclusion they reached from the facts and testimony from key stakeholders in the county was to merge the UW liberal arts campuses into the technical college system.

Campuses that offer both a technical educational track for many occupations and a baccalaureate track for professional careers are known as community colleges. Six such community colleges already exist inside the technical college system.

With such an obvious solution readily available and affirmed almost unanimously by the Washington County leaders, it’s a mystery why a network of community colleges across the state – aligned with the Wisconsin Idea – was not acted upon at the state level. Do people in Madison ever listen to ground level experts?

As a sop to the 13 communities, those leaders have offered $2 million to each community to come up with viable uses for the soon-to-be-vacated campuses. One of the proposed uses of the fund under the law would be to demolish the buildings on the campuses. Other uses that help the economy are being bandied about, but no important re-uses have surfaced.

The communities have invested many more millions into the campus infrastructures. The buildings are often county-owned. Sure, $2 million will help to find new uses for the buildings, but will never equal the lost economic vitality the two-year schools gave to the communities. Gone will be the salaries of the faculty and staff, the sales by vendors to the colleges, and the spending by students.

That’s just the loss of the economic impact. The campus also added to the quality of life. Some had public theaters and music programs. Most offered lectures. Most served as venues for community discussions and a wide variety of organizational meetings.

Further, students will no longer be able to get the first two years of a baccalaureate at low cost of about $4,000 in tuition, compared to $8,000 to almost $12,000 at four-year UW campuses. They also saved about $10,000 per year in room and board. They also earned money at their locally accessible jobs.

Let’s be honest, the technical colleges have long viewed the two-year UW colleges as competitors. There was little cooperation between the two systems. The tech college leaders were secretly in favor of closing the UW colleges.

Confoundingly, the tech colleges were recently authorized at the state level to create what is known as “general studies” programs that offered liberal arts classes for associate degrees. So, in truth, state leaders put the two systems into direct competition for liberal arts, also known as general studies.

Will students who want to pursue a baccalaureate degree on their way to four-year degrees go to the technical colleges for an affordable start to professional careers? That remains to be seen.

The technical colleges don’t have a liberal arts brand that comes anywhere near that of the University of Wisconsin. The loss of the UW brand in five communities to date, with eight more pending, depending on enrollment trends, undercut the Wisconsin Idea at its core.

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