Boots & Sabers

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0659, 24 Oct 23

Universities of Wisconsin finally responds to declining enrollment

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a part:

We see the numbers in the enrollment of the Universities of Wisconsin. Between 2012 and 2022, the universities enrolled 19,568 fewer full-time equivalent (FTE) students. That is a 12.6% decline in enrollment. The decline has not been uniform across the campuses as students increasingly show affinity for the premier campuses to the detriment of the others. UW-Milwaukee, of which UWM-WC is a part, saw a 25% decline in enrollment over the same decade. UWM-WC’s enrollment, by itself, declined 35%. It was down to just 260 FTE enrollments last year.


As an aside, it is worth noting that the Universities of Wisconsin decline in enrollment has been mitigated by their aggressive recruitment of non-residents. Between 2012 and 2022, the decline in resident (Wisconsin kids) FTE enrollment was 27,375 while non-resident enrollment increased by 9,981 FTEs. Over that period, non-resident enrollment increased from 15% of total enrollment to 25% of total enrollment.


Returning to UWM-WC, the writing has been on the wall for years. Since its peak enrollment in 2010, enrollment at the UWM-WC campus has been collapsing. The reasons for the decline have nothing to do with the quality of education provided or facilities. The reasons are strictly because of demographic shifts and student preferences for larger campuses. While the campus has been of value for the students who have attended it, it is not economically viable to maintain the campus to serve so few students.


Earlier this year, local leaders rallied to find a way to save the campus. A task force created by Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann drafted a high-level plan to merge UWM-WC with Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC) into a type of community college in an effort to shore up both institutions. The idea made it into the state budget that was passed by the Republican legislature with state taxpayers providing funding to facilitate the merge.


That part of the state budget was vetoed by Democrat Gov. Tony Evers as the institutions’ leaders clucked their tongues that the “right people” were not involved in manifesting the idea, ergo, the proposed merger was not a good idea. Frankly, I do not know that it was a good idea to prop up a failing institution by merging it with one that is doing better, but the local leaders and Republicans should be commended for trying to rescue the campus. The Democrats and leaders of UWM obstructed the rescue effort and simply wanted to continue to throw taxpayer money into propping up the status quo.


Ending in-person enrollment at UWM-WC, and the likelihood that it will completely close within the next couple of years, is long overdue. The Universities of Wisconsin have been slow to respond to the historic and projected decline in enrollment. Institutional inertia is a powerful force, but making small changes now helps eliminate the need for massive changes later.


0659, 24 October 2023


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