UW System Leaders Discussing Ways To Consolidate 2-Year Campuses With Tech Colleges

Committee Studying Wisconsin Technical College System Expansion Proposal, Ways To Collaborate

A red "W" logo is seen on a column on UW-Madison's campus
University of Wisconsin-Madison. Angela Major/WPR

With declining enrollment and fewer state dollars to work with, University of Wisconsin System interim President Tommy Thompson says it’s time to think about consolidating some two-year UW campuses with nearby technical colleges.

Thompson first mentioned the idea of consolidating UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) campuses during a Jan. 26 webinar hosted by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum. He said a number of communities around the state have two-year UW branch campuses and technical colleges, and that taxpayers would wonder why they have both.

In an interview Monday with WPR, Thompson said consolidations could mean UW System and WTCS campuses working collaboratively on curriculum. He also mentioned transferring operations from one system to the other.

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“Let’s just say there are 10 campuses that have vocational schools and universities next to each other,” said Thompson. “Maybe the tech school should take over all of them. Maybe the university should take over all of them. Or maybe we should have a situation in which we take one and they take the next one, and divide them up that way and run them as separate systems. Or maybe we should consolidate the systems. Who knows?”

Enrollment at the UW System’s two-year branch campuses has fallen by more than 51 percent from 13,095 in 2010 to 6,410 last fall.

Flagging enrollment was cited as a major driver of former UW System president Ray Cross’ decision to begin the process of merging the state’s two-year colleges with nearby four-year universities in 2017.

WTCS President Morna Foy told the Wisconsin State Journal she had an initial conversation with Thompson about the idea of consolidation, but she doesn’t support any proposal involving the UW System assuming responsibility for a technical college.

In response to a WPR interview request on the matter, WTCS spokesperson Conor Smyth said there are no updates to share.

In its state budget proposal, the WTCS is lobbying the state Legislature for a change in state law that would allow all technical colleges to offer two-year associates arts and science degrees. Currently, only campuses in Eau Claire, Madison, Milwaukee, Rhinelander and La Crosse have that ability. WTCS insists expanding the degree programs across the system will not siphon off students from the state’s four-year universities but will allow more of its students to qualify for financial aid.

In an interview with WPR, UW-Green Bay Chancellor Michael Alexander said he has been appointed to a UW System committee of chancellors and provosts to study the WTCS expansion proposal and look at opportunities for collaboration.

Alexander stressed the committee has only had one meeting and that discussions are in the very early stages. He also said UW-Green Bay and its campuses have been building relationships with area technical colleges in the 16 counties it serves.

“We’re already doing the work to make sure that, for students, there’s a seamless ability to transfer and that we value our technical college partners and everything that they do and in every way that we work with them,” said Alexander.

In a letter to campus, Alexander said the term “consolidation” has a broad meaning.

“Since I have been here and before, we have been working to consolidate pathways for students between all of our campuses and our technical college partners,” said Alexander. “We must see the holistic way that students view higher education and work to make sure that we are creating clear pathways for students to reach their educational goals. If that is what is meant by consolidation, I am all for it.”