- The University of Wisconsin may merge the state’s 13 two-year colleges into its system in an
effort to keep the smaller schools afloat as higher ed student populations and high school
graduation numbers continue to decline.
- Advocates say the merger would give the university system deeper reach into remote areas of
the state and would allow for easier transfers, according to a news release from the UW-System.
- Some critics say the consolidation is less about helping students and more about saving money,
but experts, such as Conor Smyth, director of strategic advancement with the Wisconsin
Technical College System, say the move offers students the opportunity to access what they
need, when and where they need it, and to chance to tap into the larger system’s resources and
Like college administrators throughout the U.S., those overseeing Wisconsin’s public universities are struggling to balance the books as enrollment continues to drop. With upward demographic shifts not expected for at least five to 10 years — on top of state cuts to funding and a state-mandated tuition freeze led by conservative lawmakers — UW System leaders are considering big steps to stay afloat.
UW System leaders say a closer connection to a four-year school would make the transition easier for students to continue their education. And although they expect pushback from faculty at first, especially as the details are worked out, students at two-year schools would benefit from having professors from the larger schools teaching some of their classes. Those professors would not lose tenure, Ray Cross said.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, no campus would be closed and students could still freely transfer from a two-year school in one regional cluster to any four-year UW campus outside the cluster. Cross said some bachelor’s degree programs could be added at two-year campuses that do not have a four-year college within an easy commute.
Higher ed experts say creating a more seamless system likely would trim administrative costs as four-year schools take an active role in merging with the satellite schools, while avoiding school closures or impacting student programming. This would be the most extreme change the Wisconsin system has seen since its creation in 1971, but Cross and many other administrators across the country see mergers as perhaps the best way to save the smaller schools in light of the enrollment decline and funding cuts. And with anticipated cuts to state appropriations because of changes to the tax bill, the conversation around mergers could increase in a number of states moving forward. In some cases, those changes could more mirror proposals like those in Oakland and other places, in which campuses share physical space but maintain completely separate operations. In many others, institutions will actually consolidate operations and administrative positions. In any case, the onus is on administrators and state officials to carefully consider the pros and cons, consult with stakeholders and work to ensure a smooth transition and preserve the mission and brand of both institutions to the best of their ability.
Still, some are not sold on the benefits of mergers, saying consolidation doesn't always balance campus and community costs in the long run.