- All of the two-year colleges in the University of Wisconsin System may be merged into its four-year institutions starting in July 2018, according to a potential new overhaul announced by the system's leadership, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
- A decision by the system's Board of Regents could come as early as November, and the plan would also put Wisconsin's public television and radio under the system's administration, with system President Ray Cross argues the move is the best way to counter declining enrollment in UW's two-year schools while making it easier for students to transfer credits between the system's two- and four-year institutions.
- There are few details yet as to how the new plan will be implemented or what it will look like in practice, and representatives from the system were unsure whether the restructuring would result in job losses, though it's unknown if the administrative side of the system's two-year colleges will still exist at all if the plan comes to fruition.
The University of Wisconsin system has faced continuous pressure and turmoil from state legislators in recent years, including a cut in funding in 2016 and a proposal from Gov. Scott Walker to cut tuition rates while raising funding earlier this year. It is unclear whether this kind of uncertainty has led to enrollment difficulties for the system's two-year colleges. But it should nevertheless be a warning to school and system leaders in other states to work to develop relationships and lines of communication with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and to make sure that these relationships are able to transcend partisan squabbles, as the icy relationship between Wisconsin lawmakers and the university system was likely exacerbated by overt partisanship. Letting lawmakers know that a lack of stability could have a potentially negative long-term impact on enrollment rates, making it harder for the system to thrive, is key.
The merger of the state's two-year colleges with the four-year universities may confront issues of declining enrollment, but Wisconsin and other states considering such an action should also consider the impact these kinds of mergers could have on accessibility for much of the state's population to a postsecondary education — particularly those living in rural areas further from the large universities, as well as nontraditional students and adult learners who may have professional and/or personal commitments that do not allow them to travel far to attend school. In a state like Ohio, for example, community colleges are starting to offer paths to attain Bachelor's degrees in order to help students who cannot travel long distances, and this may have the ancillary benefit of boosting enrollment at those two-year campuses. As states consider whether to follow the lead of Wisconsin in how to address low enrollment at two-year colleges, they should consider that expanding the range of options at those schools may also have a pronounced effect.