Estimates show continued enrollment declines at most UW System campuses

9 out of 13 state universities saw enrollment fall between 3 and 6 percent

A graduate holds a diploma above her head with a determined expression.
Frances Nazario holds a diploma in a pizza box after walking the stage at UW-Green Bay’s drive-thru graduation ceremony Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Enrollment at Wisconsin’s state universities fell by around 1 percent compared to last fall, according to new estimates from the University of Wisconsin System. While three schools saw more students enrolling this fall, nine reported declines of between 3 and 6 percent, and one reported steady enrollment.

Initial enrollment estimates from the UW System, released Thursday, show another year of mixed news for the state’s 13 universities. Official fall figures won’t be released until November, but estimates from last year were within 1 percent of the final tally.

Even with overall declines at most state schools, UW System President Jay Rothman was optimistic about increased freshman enrollments. UW System data show 26,442 new freshman enrolled at four-year universities this semester, representing an increase of more than 2 percent. That’s the most first-year enrollments since 2018. During a briefing with reporters, UW System President Jay Rothman said that’s important amid a fierce competition for talent among Wisconsin businesses.

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“It’s exciting for us,” said Rothman. “But I think it ought to be really good news for the state of Wisconsin, because new graduates are on their way, ultimately to the employers who have jobs for them.”

Rothman said he anticipates freshman enrollments will continue to grow because of the Wisconsin Tuition Promise initiative, which aims to waive remaining tuition and fees not covered by financial aid for students from families with incomes below $62,000 per year.

Overall, just three state universities enrolled more students this fall than last. Topping the list was UW-Madison, which added 2,177 students for an increase of 5 percent. UW-Superior came in second with an increase of 100 students — or 4 percent enrollment growth over official enrollment numbers from fall 2021. UW-Green Bay had the third-strongest enrollment growth of 3 percent, which works out to an increase of 316 students, according to UW System figures.

A UW-Superior press release boasted a second consecutive year of enrollment growth. The bulk of the increase at the state’s northernmost campus came from online graduate enrollment, which was up 31 percent, according to the university.

“The success of our enrollment growth is testament to a coordinated and dedicated effort across departments focused on diversifying our student body through various program and modalities,” said Jeremy Nere, executive director of admissions at UW-Superior. “We continue to see growth through our online graduate programs and high school dual enrollment, but also continue to support on-campus undergraduate programs with the support they need to thrive.”

UW-Superior did see a 4 percent decline in on-campus undergraduate students, but the university said that number has been constant amid challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enrollment at UW-La Crosse held steady this fall with a decline of 12 students, according to the university. A campus press release noted the university enrolled back-to-back record freshman classes. This year, UW-La Crosse reported 2,308 first-year students, up 4.5 percent over last year’s freshman tally.

Among the nine state universities that lost students based on estimates, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Stout saw the largest drops. UW-Oshkosh was down 853 students compared to last year’s official fall enrollment of 14,152, which works out to a 6 percent decline. UW-Stout was down 455 students compared to fall 2021.

UW-Eau Claire, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls all saw enrollment decline by 5 percent, according to UW System data. UW-Whitewater saw a 4 percent decline and UW-Stevens Point was down 3 percent.

The UW System’s two-year branch campuses continued a trend of larger enrollment declines than at its four-year universities. UW-Stevens Point’s Wausau campus lost 134 students, for a year-over-year decline of 25 percent. UW-Platteville’s Baraboo campus was down 40 students compared to last fall, for a decline of 18 percent. Both of UW-Oshkosh’s campuses in Fond du Lac and the Fox Cities saw enrollment dip 16 percent compared to fall 2021.

Nationally, college enrollment has been falling consistently in recent years. In January, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported enrollment fell by 3.1 percent or 465,300 students in the fall of 2021 compared to fall 2020.

The organization reported in May that “enrollment declines continued to worsen” during the spring semester with a decline of 4.1 percent or 685,000 students compared to spring of 2021.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.