Major budget cuts, declining enrollment, and decreasing graduation rates are plaguing the University of Wisconsin (UW) school system. But are the UW Regents wrong to merge two-year colleges with four-year universities – i.e., absorbing UW-Waukesha and UW-Washington County into UW-Milwaukee? No, but there are a number of serious concerns about such a merger that aren’t being addressed.
To be sure, something needs to be done to accommodate the loss of funds, to increase enrollment at two-year colleges, and to increase the number of students finishing their degrees, and the merger is possibly an opportunity to solve all three of these issues. However, the UW Regents are diving head first into a pool with an unknown depth. There is so much that is still unknown about how the merger would work, as well as what the possible outcomes for both the near and distant future could be.
Firstly, there are the concerns that UW school employees have. Will they lose their jobs? Will entire programs and departments disappear? Then there are the concerns of the current and future UW students. Will this mean an increase in tuition costs at the two-year schools? Will they still be able to have the same quality of education? Then there are the concerns of the stakeholders. What if the merger fails outright? What if they merge the schools but then see a rapid decline in enrollment (resulting in a substantial decline in tuition-based income)? Then there’s the biggest question of all: why is the UW Regents rushing such a large and complex decision?
A decision of this magnitude, affecting thousands of lives, needs to be taken more seriously. The decision process needs to slow down, and take as many possibilities into account before coming to a final decision. What about the research? Where is the quantitative and qualitative support for the perceived success of such a merger? And a merger of this scale? What are the projections for what the merger would look like five, 10, or 15 years down the road? What programs or plans will also be implemented in the event that the merger fails? When so many lives are being affected, there needs to be a due process involved to try and account for any shortcomings before such a program is implemented. It’s not just funding or finances at stake, its students’ futures and employees’ ability to put food on the table that are also being put at risk.
To be sure, there are a multitude of unforeseen events that would be impossible to account for, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t solutions. One way that the UW Regents could slow down the process of a merger would be to have a trial merger. Over the course of multiple years, they could try the merger with a small selection of schools and then add more schools to the merger program as time progresses. This way they could work out the kinks they come across as time progresses, apply what they learn with the first few schools so that when it comes to growing the program, they can alter their process to make for a smoother transition.
Merger or no merger, the UW Regents need to slow down this decision process before they realize all too late that they might be diving head first into the shallow end of a school merger.