by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
UW System President Jay Rothman has asked for a financial assessment of 12 of the state’s two-year branch colleges as they face dwindling enrollment and threats to their future survival.
The request, in a letter sent to the four-year university chancellors responsible for the management of the branches, comes just months before in-person classes come to an end at UW-Richland Center. Rothman announced late last year that a steep decline in enrollment at that campus required the end of in-person education there, which has spurred a community effort to save the institution.
“The enrollments at these campuses have declined precipitously over the last five years. In order to sustain accessibility at these locations, we must prioritize and develop an assessment to that identifies and addresses any financial and operational issues,” Rothman wrote. “It also is clear that each location is unique such that a systemwide, one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option.”
Rothman’s search for a move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach could be seen as a rebuke of former system president Ray Cross’ decision just five years ago to merge the two-year and four-year campuses. Many residents in Richland County have pointed to the forced marriage with UW-Platteville as a major reason for the campus’ closure, alleging the four-year school moved staff and resources away from the Richland campus. Enrollment there dropped to just 60 students last fall and enrollment across the branch campuses has dropped by nearly 50% since the merger was announced in 2018.
The warnings of financial instability at the branch campuses have raised alarms for county officials across the state. The ownership and upkeep of the campuses is the responsibility of county governments while the UW System covers the cost of faculty and classes.
Last week, the Washington County Board of Supervisors passed a nonbinding resolution that recommends merging the UW-Milwaukee at Washington County campus with Moraine Park Technical College to address enrollment declines there.
“The objective is to encourage innovative and creative approaches to the branch campuses,” Rothman wrote. “This may include, for example (as some of you are already doing), offering graduate programs at these locations, expanding dual enrollment, adopting a “one university/multiple location” approach, partnering with local tech colleges, providing reskilling/upskilling programming, moving to an online format, and offering a pathway for degree completion for non-traditional students. All options should be on the table. It is imperative that we are innovative and aggressive.”
In response to Richland’s forthcoming closure, county officials there have proposed offering limited programs for nursing and education degrees while attempting to reinstate formerly successful programs such as high school dual enrollment and the recruitment of international students.
This story was written by Henry Redman, a reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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