Multiple mergers ahead for the University of Wisconsin system

In the most spectacular recent example of the higher education crisis driving campus mergers, the University of Wisconsin system will fold a group of two-year colleges into nearby universities, according to a new plan.   Thirteen (13) campuses will merge with seven (7) four-year institutions:

In addition, extension programs will be placed under UW Madison.

This is a huge development. As Rick Seltzer puts it, “While several states, like PennsylvaniaVermont and Connecticut, have flirted with or pursued the idea of merging state institutions in recent years, systematic changes are virtually nonexistent.”

What is the motivating force for this massive move?  My loyal readers already suspect the answer:

Cathy Sandeen, Chancellor for UW Colleges and Extension, said the UW System has been working to maintain the viability of the small campuses around the state in light of declining student population.

“declining student population”.  Moreover:

[UW System President Ray] Cross cited demographic projections that nearly 95 percent of total population growth in Wisconsin will be age 65 and older by 2040, while those of working age (18-64) will increase less than half a percent.

Nearly the entire population growth will be seniors?  That might sound extreme, but one Wisconsin research team (at UWM) offers supporting data from recent history:

In 2000, the median age of Wisconsin residents was 36.0 years old. In 2010, it was 38.5 years old. Wisconsin had an older median age than did the Midwest as a whole (37.7) or the United States overall (37.2).

The aging of the Baby Boom generation is fueling the aging of Wisconsin. Because the number of people born between 1946 and 1964 is so large, the overall age of the state gets older as this generation ages. The increasingly large proportion of seniors in Wisconsin is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades…

Once again, demographic forces are very, very powerful.  That’s one reason we futurists focus on them.  And in the vast majority of American colleges and universities, deeply dependent on tuition and fees for survival, an aging population can mean shrinking enrollment.

Back to Seltzer:

None of the colleges grew enrollment between 2010 and 2017. UW Rock County posted the smallest percentage decline, 28 percent, to 661.3 full-time-equivalent students. UW Manitowoc had the largest decline, 52 percent, to 250.7. Only one of the colleges, UW Waukesha, enrolled more than 1,000 full-time-equivalent students in 2017.

Declines between 28 and 52%?  One quarter to one half of their populations?  One local report gives the average decline as “32% since 2010, based on preliminary fall 2017 numbers,” or one-third.

President Cross explains on local public radio:

This restructure is not gonna make families have more kids or, uh, somehow magically attract 18 to 25 year olds to this state, or older… This is an effort for us to more effectively concentrate our efforts to serve those that are here.

In this case, demographics have brought Wisconsin’s 2-year colleges nearly to their end.  Listen to how the system leader phrases this sentence: “Cross said his proposal will help avoid closing any two-year campus and maintain the UW presence in local communities.”  Closures are on the table.  Emptying some communities of their community higher education resources  – violating their very purpose – is on the table.  As Cross told IHE, “We explored a lot of options, including just closing a few of them…”

At the same time, Wisconsin may suffer from unmet workforce needs, as per the rapidly aging population:

Another goal would be to get more students into and through the educational pipeline to meet Wisconsin’s projected workforce needs. One factor would be to identify and reduce barriers to transferring credits within the UW System.

Note how the official explanation offers many positive claims, from curricular enhancement to smoothing inter-institutional credit transfer:

The objectives of the restructuring include:

  • Expanding access to higher education by offering more general education and upper-level courses at the integrated branch campuses

  • Identifying and reducing barriers to transferring credits within the UW System

  • Maintaining affordability by continuing current tuition levels at the branch campuses post-merger for general education courses

  • Further standardizing and regionalizing administrative operations and services to more efficiently use resources

  • Leveraging resources and shared talent at our institutions to get more students into and through the educational pipeline, better aligning the university to meet Wisconsin’s projected workforce needs

Inside Higher Ed expands this account by adding the political environment, with state Republicans pressing hard to “reform” and shrink public higher education.  One part of that strategy involves cracking down on protesting students, harshly.

IHE also includes this bit about faculty governance:

Faculty members at both two-year and four-year UW institutions worried that the process will be rushed. Some felt blindsided by a proposal they learned about mere weeks before it is set to go before the Board of Regents. They wondered about a tight timeline for implementing that plan.

“My primary concern is that the UW System administration is proposing such a sweeping overhaul without any stakeholder input, with very few details known and with very little time before the regents are supposed to vote on it,” said Nicholas Fleisher, an associate professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, via email. “This is the kind of major reorganization that is supposed to take years of careful planning, with appropriate feedback and approval from governance groups, in a transparent manner. What we’re seeing right now is the opposite on all counts.”

This local report adds that neither staff nor students were consulted.

IHE also, and crucially, raises the possibility of multiple queen sacrifices:

The amount of money saved, changes in faculty numbers and changes to staff levels resulting from the restructuring have yet to be determined. But there will be budget savings, Cross said.

i.e., “redundant” faculty and staff can be cut.  Recall that the state managed to weaken tenure protections.

Stepping back a little from the plan’s details, we can consider the bigger picture implications for American higher ed, and possibly for post-secondary education in other nations with similar demographics.  As one commentator put it, “I can recognize the need for changes in a state saturated with higher education options and institutions/systems originally built for a population that no longer exists.”

Is this another sign of American higher ed having past a peak?  Is the giant edifice, once designed for a growing population of students (circa 1965-2010) now overbuilt?


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13 Responses to Multiple mergers ahead for the University of Wisconsin system

  1. Eshani says:

    I feel apart from demographics, this shift in educational enrollment and also the constant rate of enrollment is a reflection of online courses offered in higher ed that caters the need of the students at low cost. This move actually if directed positively shall open scope for offering more of online courses in the field of higher ed and opening small learning centers that assist learners in the process of learning, This shall be the cost-cutting and effective tool for learners, Universities, Professors and adminstration department.

  2. amichaelberman says:

    I feel bad for the people who will be hurt by this… but colleges with 250 FTE? None with more than 1000? I think it’s incredibly hard to run a cost-efficient stand-alone public college with that few enrollments.

    • Once again we come back to the problem of scale, and America’s unusual habit of operating some very small campuses. It might be that the medium- and large-sized institutions weather this storm, while the tiny ones fade.

  3. Joe Murphy says:

    Do you see an overall deprecation of the associate’s degree here, and is it part of a larger pattern? Lots of talk about transfer credit, general education, and getting “into the educational pipeline”, but nothing about community colleges as degree-producing institutions themselves. (Interesting to note that the system will “continu(e) current tuition levels at the branch campuses post-merger for general education courses”… suggesting that the system sees community college courses in the majors as a revenue loss.)

    I heard from some community leaders recently that our local technical college primarily serves people retraining for industry, not as much of an on-ramp for the Ohio State system. I notice there’s no mention of non-degree industry certification in this coverage, and wonder how that plays out in Wisconsin.

    • In Wisconsin, the “UW Colleges” were originally called the Center campuses, and were always designed as stepping stones toward four-year degrees elsewhere. Today, they do issue Associate in Arts and Sciences degrees (, but all the marketing points to fully transferable credits at half the cost of the bigger schools.
      These are different from the administratively separate technical colleges, which are focused on AA/AS degrees, though many students do seek the “general education” courses offered at the technical schools as a way to get started relatively cheaply.
      Meanwhile, UW-Extension and UW-Milwaukee’s School of Continuing Education handles those non-degree certification programs. They also used to be a good way to get certified in web design/development till that budget was cut.
      Folks here may find this interview with Ray Cross on a local Sunday public-affairs show interesting. If you skip over the middle segment with one of the Democratic candidates for governor, you can also see how our tech schools are preparing students to work at Foxconn.

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