UW System president calls for financial assessments of 2-year campuses amid steep enrollment declines

Directive comes months before classes cease at campus formerly known as UW-Richland

Students sit at a table in a small classroom.
Students Jackson Kinney, right, Haley Zumach, center, and Aliyah Sander, left, participate in a class discussion Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

As a former two-year state college prepares for its final classes, University of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman is asking chancellors to assess the financial viability of the state’s 12 other branch campuses. The directive comes amid steep enrollment declines at nearly all of the two-year schools and hesitancy by some counties to make large investments in branch campus buildings without renewed commitments the schools won’t close.

In a letter to chancellors at four-year universities who took on former UW Colleges during a 2018 merger, Rothman calls for financial assessments at the branch campuses along with “innovative and creative approaches” to bolster them.

“The enrollments at these campuses have declined precipitously over the last five years,” Rothman said. “In order to sustain accessibility at these locations, we must prioritize and develop an assessment that identifies and addresses any financial and operational issues.”

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In the five years since the merger, enrollment across the UW System’s 12 branch campuses has fallen by an average of around 48 percent. Last November, Rothman announced in-person college classes at UW-Platteville’s two-year campus in Richland Center would end July 1 as just 60 students were enrolled there last fall.

The announcement got the attention of county boards, which own and maintain the former colleges. Some have delayed major investments in maintenance and upgrades until they get renewed commitments from UW System that they won’t close those schools.

Last week, the Washington County Board of Supervisors approved a non-binding resolution that recommends merging UW-Milwaukee at Washington County with Moraine Park Technical College to address enrollment declines at the former UW college.

Rothman’s letter states the goal of the assessments are to give chancellors “broad autonomy” in addressing enrollment and fiscal challenges in collaboration of the UW System Administration Office through periodic meetings.

“The objective is to encourage innovative and creative approaches to the branch campuses,” Rothman said.

He included examples like offering graduate degree programs at the branch campuses, offering more college classes to high school students through dual-enrollment agreements with districts, partnering with nearby technical colleges and “moving to an online format.”

Wisconsin Public Radio reached out to administrators at the seven UW schools that took on branch campuses for comment on Rothman’s directive. Four universities responded, but all deferred to the UW System Administration Office. A system spokesperson said Rothman was not available for comment.

Jon Shelton is an associate professor at UW-Green Bay associate professor and Vice President of Higher Education for the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation Teachers. He told WPR the directive is “just more evidence of how poorly the initial merger was thought out.”

Shelton said faculty and staff weren’t properly consulted when former UW System President Ray Cross’ plan to consolidate state colleges and universities was leaked to media. At the time, former UW-Colleges and Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen told WPR she first heard of the plan the day before it made news.

Shelton said it seems like Rothman is embarking on a “good faith conversation” to find a sustainable path for the two-year UW System schools.

“But there’s also obviously, I think, a real fear that this is a precursor to actions that might be similar to those that happened at Richland Center,” Shelton said.

UW-Platteville chemistry processor Chuck Cornett serves as a faculty representative to the UW System Board of Regents. He told WPR a financial and operational assessment of two-year campuses is needed and Rothman’s directive “doesn’t startle me too much.”

“I think it’s only healthy that once we made such a big move to merge those (schools), the system is wanting to have an overall assessment of where we are after we made such a big move,” Cornett said.

Rothman’s letter about the branch campus assessments calls for future meetings with chancellors to discuss options, but none have been scheduled thus far.