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Enrollment at 2-year UW System schools continues to fall amid pandemic

UW-Platteville's Richland campus down to 75 students from a high of 567 in 2014

Golden light shines on Van Hise Hall
Van Hise Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Friday, April 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Enrollment at several two-year University of Wisconsin System campuses fell by more than 20 percent this fall compared to numbers from 2020. UW-Platteville Richland saw the steepest decline, with just 75 students counted this September.

When combined, the state’s 26 campuses saw only a slight enrollment variation this fall compared to last year. Overall, UW System enrollment fell by 1,786 students for a reduction of just more than 1 percent. During a Thursday UW Board of Regents meeting, UW System interim President Tommy Thompson noted the overall decline was smaller than the national rate. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse show enrollment in fall 2021 was down 2.3 percent across the U.S.

“New freshman enrollment, which is, I think, really a bright spot for all of us at the university system campuses, also outpaced national average,” said Thompson. “The number of freshmen enrolled at the UW System increased by 3.9 percent, while the research center estimates freshman enrollment nationwide dropped 3.1 percent.”

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Thompson said the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the UW System’s enrollment challenges. He said the bulk of the enrollment declines across the system was due to undergraduate students who left campuses after the pandemic impacted the 2020-2021 school year. In March 2020, every UW System school shut down and moved classes online. Last fall, many classes were still being taught either online or in a hybrid format.

Thompson also said an abundance of jobs offering good pay has added to enrollment challenges at campuses. He told Regents the system has to continue ensuring that college is accessible, affordable and much more student-centric than in the past.

Enrollment challenges at 2-year campuses

When broken down by individual campuses, enrollment changes fluctuated significantly during the second fall semester of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new UW System data.

UW-Platteville’s Richland campus had just 75 students enrolled in September, down from 108 students in fall of 2020. That works out to a 31 percent decrease year to year. The two-year school in Richland Center, like most of its UW counterparts, has seen steady enrollment declines in recent years. In 2014, the Richland campus counted 567 students according to UW System enrollment data.

“We anticipated a decline, but you know, this was a steep decline,” UW-Platteville Communications Director Paul Erickson told WPR.

He said the pandemic has made it more difficult to bring potential students to campus and meet with faculty and staff.

Erickson said the UW-Platteville has hired a recruiter for the Richland campus, working to get a counselor into local high schools and developing courses in line with business needs in the region.

“The bottom line is, we don’t have any plans to close a branch campus,” said Ericskson.

The last state campus to close was UW-Medford Center. A state journal report states the Medford campus had 90 students when regents voted to shut it down.

In an interview with WPR, Thompson said the status at the Richland campus is an indication of why it’s important for state lawmakers and college leaders to create a taskforce to study the future of higher education in Wisconsin.

“This is just an example of what portends for the future if we don’t take this opportunity to act and look at an overall, long range plan on higher education,” said Thompson.

UW-Oshkosh’s two-year campus in Fond du Lac was down 113 students this fall compared to last. The campus counted 281 students, which works out to a 29 percent drop in enrollment.

UW-Milwaukee’s branch campus in West Bend and UW-Oshkosh’s branch campus in Menasha saw enrollments decline by 23 percent.

Among the UW’s 13 two-year campuses only the three tied to UW-Green Bay saw enrollment gains. UW-Green Bay Manitowoc had 341 students enrolled this fall. That’s 54 more than last year’s fall count, which works out to a 19 percent increase. Enrollment was up at 12 percent at UW-Green Bay Marinette and 9 percent at UW-Green Bay, Sheboygan.

Enrollment trends at 4-year system campuses

There were notable declines among some four-year UW System colleges as well. UW-Platteville’s main campus had the steepest decline year over year. There were 6,486 students this fall. That’s 731 fewer than Sept. 2020 and works out to a 10 percent drop. Just six years ago, UW-Platteville had 8,950 students.

UW-Oshkosh’s main campus counted 13,157 students this fall, down 841 students, or 6 percent, compared to fall of 2020. UW-Whitewater’s main campus had 10,816 students this September. That’s 408 fewer than in fall of 2020, which equates to a 4 percent decrease.

Only three of the state’s 13 four-year universities gained students this year. UW-Green Bay’s main campus had 8,771 enrolled in September. That’s 715 more than in fall of 2020 and works out to a 9 percent increase.

UW-Madison enrolled 47,824 students this fall for an increase of 5 percent of 2,341 over 2020.

UW-Superior added 50 students this September compared to last. Enrollment now stands at 2,609, or 2 percent higher than last fall.

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse show public, private two- and four-year colleges in Wisconsin saw enrollment decline by 8.2 percent over the course of the pandemic. Nationwide, enrollment declined 6.5 percent during the same period.