Washington County task force proposes merging 2-year UW campus with Moraine Park Technical College

Idea to create unified community college follows UW System decision to end classes at UW-Platteville Richland

An empty classroom
An empty classroom is pictured at the MHS, Meo High School private college, in Paris on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Francois Mori/AP Photo

The Washington County Board of Supervisors will vote next week on a proposal to merge a two-year University of Wisconsin System campus facing steep enrollment declines with Moraine Park Technical College. The plan to create a community college pilot program comes three months after the UW System announced the end of classes at another two-year campus in Richland Center.

UW-Milwaukee at Washington County has seen enrollment drop by more than 70 percent since peaking at 1,117 students in 2010. In fall 2022, there were 332 students enrolled.

In 2021, Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann assembled a task force to look for solutions. The group, made up of members with backgrounds in business, academics, county government and nonprofits, held meetings with stakeholders from UW-Milwaukee and Moraine Park Technical College.

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Schoemann said when UW System President Jay Rothman announced in November 2022 that in-person classes would end this summer at UW-Platteville Richland it “lit a fire under everybody.”

“All of a sudden, for our task force, I think it became very, very real,” Schoemann said. “Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is actually going to happen, what’s going to happen to all these other two-year (campuses), and what does the effective closure even mean for Richland? What would it mean for us?’”

This week, a blog post by business owner and task force co-chair John Torinus announced the group “unanimously proposed to merge the failing two-year UWM satellite campus with the successful two-year Moraine Park Technical College” in West Bend.

The idea of merging two-year UW campuses with nearby technical colleges isn’t new. Former UW System President Tommy Thompson advocated for it in 2021 and Thompson’s predecessor, former UW System President Ray Cross, previously told Wisconsin Public Radio he’d had discussions about mergers but local technical college boards were opposed.

Torinus’ post noted technical colleges in Wisconsin have traditionally offered technical degrees and certifications for careers in fields like nursing, information technology, plumbing and other trades. Meanwhile, he said, the UW campus was aimed at providing liberal arts education for students interested in transferring to four-year bachelor degree programs.

“That difference in mission was erased in Wisconsin recently when the technical colleges moved into associate degrees in general education, aka liberal arts,” Torinus said. “The nearby schools are now in direct competition. The UW Board of Regents heightened the competition by deciding to accept full transfer of tech college credits to UW universities.”

Part of what Torinus refers to is the UW System Board of Regents’ approval of eight new liberal arts, associate degree programs at technical colleges, including Moraine Park.

The proposal to potentially cut ties with the UW System and create a community college owned and managed by Moraine Park Technical College comes as other counties with two-year UW campuses postpone maintenance projects until they get renewed commitments that the system won’t close their schools.

County executive Schoemann said he “respectfully stepped away from the path” other counties have taken and wanted to take a more proactive approach.

“I think it starts with the Legislature and Washington County should be the pilot to start it off because we’re willing to take that risk,” Schoemann said.

Schoemann said state lawmakers representing the area have been engaged in the discussions about the potential merger. He said staff with State Sen. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, are looking into a legislative solution. An email sent to WPR by Hutton’s communications director, Chris Rochester, said no legislation has been drafted, but the office has been helping facilitate conversations about the idea.

“We don’t want Moraine Park to feel like they have to take the buildings of (UW-Milwaukee at Washington County),” Schoemann said. “They don’t have to necessarily take the professors from (the campus).”

He said those professors and staff may be better served working at UW-Milwaukee’s main campus, or its other branch campus in Waukesha. As for the building, which is owned by the county, Schoemann said it’s a small part of the “total transaction” and there aren’t yet plans for what to do with it. He said the main focus needs to be serving students from the community.

In an emailed statement sent to WPR, Moraine Park Technical College President Bonnie Baerwald said college representatives provided information to Washington County’s task force, “but we were not voting members for final decisions.” She said with the college’s new authority to offer associate of arts and associate of science degrees students can transfer directly to state universities.

“We don’t see a need to formally merge anything, but welcome the opportunity to work closer with UW-Milwaukee and other 4-yr. higher education partners to provide seamless transfer opportunities to our graduates who desire the completion of their baccalaureate degrees,” Baerwald’s statement said.

Another emailed statement from Liv Hwang, UW-Milwaukee’s vice chancellor for marketing and communications, said the university is committed to ensuring students in Washington County have access to affordable, quality higher education in their community and the university has made “significant investments in academic programming” since merging with the Washington County campus.

“If the Washington County Board of Supervisors approves the task force’s resolution, there are many more things that need to happen before any proposals turn into concrete action,” her statement said. “That includes future involvement from UWM, UW System, the Wisconsin Technical College System and others. We also strongly believe that UWM at Washington County faculty, students and staff need to be involved in such conversations.”

Schoemann said discussions will continue, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for the county. He said he’d like to see legislation authorizing a community college pilot program in Washington County included in the state budget, which is currently being drafted.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to get this solution up and running sooner rather than later, because we know that demography does mean destiny,” Schoemann said.