Mergers Ahead for the University of Wisconsin System: Do Declining Enrollments and Shifting Demographics Mean Big Changes for UWisc??

Across the nation, college admission boards and administrations are beginning to plan ahead for a, potentially, major crisis on the horizon.  Between 2011 and 2016, college enrollment dropped by 8%.  The declines were concentrated mostly in community colleges and for-profit schools, however, public institutions saw declines as well.  Explanations for the decline have ranged from high profile student protests on campus turning off would-be enrollees to a gradual rebound in the national economy cooling returning students’ interest in revisiting the classroom.  No matter the explanation, some states have proactively undertaking plans to address these declines in enrollment before they can “shock” their systems.

The most ambitious of these recent plans was unveiled earlier this month by the University of Wisconsin System’s President, Ray Cross.  The President’s plan is for most of the state’s public two-year colleges to merge with public four-year institutions that are geographically nearby.  Following the merger, the two-year colleges would cease to exist as independent institutions and, instead, become branch campuses of the four-year institutions.  The students of the two-year colleges would continue to pay a reduced tuition rate, about half the tuition at the four-years.  Mr. Cross hopes that the closer relationships between two- and four-year universities will encourage students to transfer to the 4-year institutions to complete their Bachelor’s degrees.

For the President of the system, the reasons for this merger plan, and its prompt implementation, could not be more clear.  Mr. Cross commented that this proposal, which is expected to be heard by the UWisc Board of Regents during the November meeting, is intended to address two serious issues.  First, enrollments at the two-year colleges are dropping.  For example, between 2010 and 2017, UW-Manitowoc, a two-year college, lost fifty-two percent of its enrollment.  At another two-year school, UW-Marathon, the percentage drop was fifty-one percent.  Even the two-year colleges with the lowest enrollment drops lost an alarming number of students: UW-Rock County (down 28%) and UW-Waukesha (down 29%).  Mr. Cross spoke of the need to continue offering courses to the communities served by these institutions, but shared concern about the possible shuttering of these campuses if major changes were not put in place.  The second reason cited for the change was years of budget cuts coming out of Madison.  The mergers are expected to cut costs, while allowing two-year institutions to remain open for the foreseeable future—something that is not guaranteed by the status quo.  Mr. Cross told reporters that he expects to save money by cutting duplicative departments and services that will now be combined, including in human resources, student services—such as financial aid staff and student advising—and IT operations. No faculty cuts are expected as a result of the mergers.

The proposal has not met with universal enthusiasm.  Faculty groups and the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE) reacted with skepticism.  While acknowledging the difficulties resulting from the drop in statewide enrollment, demographic trends, and the necessity of a proactive response, the groups reacted strongly against the President’s timeline.  Referring to the proposal’s announcement and proposed vote schedule as “folly,” they called upon the President and the Board to allow for public comment on the proposal and for an opportunity for revisions before it is offered to the Board for a vote.  Viewing the proposal as part of a continuing attack on faculty in the UWisc System, they questioned the logic of the proposal and called for additional study to be completed before implementation.  WISCAPE echoed the faculty’s concerns and added that the basis for the proposal—shifting demographics—may be unfounded, questioning whether the proposal would serve the state’s increasing population of high school students of color.

Even though it may represent the most sweeping changes to a state-wide college system yet, the UWisc plan is not the first of its kind.  Similar restructurings have been attempted in Maine, Vermont, and Georgia.  In addition, in states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and others, restricting plans have been introduced, only to be later shelved or postponed.  The plan most similar to UWisc, Georgia state’s adopted plan, calls for mergers to be announced in waves over time. This is a stark difference from UWisc’s plan for dramatic changes all at once.  In some ways, the UWisc plan is a “back-to-the-future” plan for the Badger State: UWisc’s two-year and four-year colleges were combined into single institutions until they were separated in the 1960’s.

Even if the faculty groups who oppose the plan get the UWisc plan postponed or cancelled, there are likely to be similar efforts in other state-wide systems in the near term.  That means that the issues raised in the restructuring plan will remain the same.  On the faculty side, those issues include: tenure, faculty seniority, hiring criteria, and academic freedom issues.  The UWisc proposal provides no specifics on these details.  While President Cross did not mention any faculty layoffs, faculty members remain concerned about the related issues.  For example, faculty expressed concern over hiring criteria.

Not all institutions in the UWisc system contain the same hiring criteria, which is especially true between two-year and four-year institutions.  For example, most two-year institutions only require a Master’s degree to be an instructor, while four-year institutions require a terminal degree, usually a Ph.D.  When UW-Barron County, a two-year institution, mergers with UW-Eau Claire, a four-year institution, which institution’s hiring criteria will be followed? The resolution of this issue seems to fall to the local college administrators.  In addition, faculty seniority issues will have to be addressed.  If, for instance, departments chose their classes “round-robin” style—each instructor taking one class at a time—who will go first? The merger does appear to address duplicative department issues, but does not address duplicative class schedules.  There are additional academic freedom and disciplinary issues that may need to be addressed when the mergers finally do occur.

With the proposal set for a vote at the UWisc Board meeting in November, the system’s merger process could begin quickly.  It will be worth watching whether UWisc’s “canary in a coal mine” plan will become a model for other states to follow when addressing the changing demographics of their own student populations or if it is a proposal that is better to avoid altogether.