Declining enrollment rates and growing budget concerns at the University of Wisconsin System’s two-year campuses drove the recent announcement of a proposal to keep the schools afloat by merging them with four-year universities in the region.
Ray Cross, president of the UW System, proposed the restructuring changes as an effort to cut costs, increase enrollment and college access, and raise graduation rates. The proposal aims to extend some bachelor’s degree programs to the branch campuses in order to allow students more access to higher level classes within that region. According to Cross, the goal of the merger is to address declining enrollment rates by giving students the chance to pursue their education at a more geographically convenient and financially affordable institution, without closing down any of the two-year campuses.
The board agrees that, in essence, the merger seems to have nothing but positive intentions to save students money, preserve faculty jobs, and keep schools open. However, with very little to go off in terms of success stories for other universities, and the lack of an actual plan of action for implementing the merger in place, we also feel that there needs to be a long-term plan of action before executing the changes.
With these campuses offering bachelor degree options, students looking to stay in their location might be more willing to enroll, knowing that they can get either the bulk of, or the full program credits at the branch campus. This could help boost enrollment at these universities, which has seen a significant drop in the more rural campus locations like Wausau and Marshfield.
However, trying to roll this all out at once with no real plan or serious statistics to prove that the merger will be successful has already created chaos and animosity for the faculty at these smaller campuses, who are understandably concerned about their future. If this merger were to happen, there are lot of things that should be considered regarding the tenured faculty at the branch campuses and how much power the extensions would have.
Currently, there isn’t much known about how the merger would affect faculty and students in the long-run if the four-year campuses absorbed the two-years. There are a lot of fears regarding governance of tenured faculty and if they will rank in the administrative decisions regarding programs in the extensions, and that the merger could likely lead to fewer jobs. If the four-year campuses gain full control over the decisions made regarding the extensions, where would the faculty and advisors from the branch campuses rank? Especially regarding programs and services that that faculty have invested years’ worth of time and commitment to?
This is a major concern among people at two-year campuses across Wisconsin, and if the UW system implements this colossal change, it should make sure that the extensions wouldn’t lose their seniority and still be allowed to have a say in decisions regarding their campus.
The proposal should also consider the tuition differential between the branch campuses and four-year institutions. Many cost-conscious, low-income students utilize the option to get the first two years of their college coursework done at a more affordable rate, and if the individual “main” campuses propose a change in tuition cost at the branch campuses, it could actually hurt enrollment rates rather than increase them.
There are also concerns about what programs will be eliminated at the institutional level once the merge happens, as well as decisions about faculty layoff regarding the four-year campuses that are also struggling financially. For example, if the four-year campus is considering layoffs, they should also have to take in consideration things like seniority, rank, years of service, etc. to those faculty in the extensions who are members of their departments.
A solution to addressing some of the concerns of the faculty could involve slowly testing one or two of the 13 two-year campuses and seeing how they succeed with enrollment rates and budget decreases. This would be a better solution than just merging them all at once and hoping for the best. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other university systems that have done something of this magnitude with their schools, so learning from other states and schools is somewhat implausible. However, Georgia State University in Atlanta did something similar by merging with two five-year perimeter schools, and has seen its enrollment rates double in just one year after the merger. So, there are positive results to consider, albeit a relatively small focus group.
If the UW administration can figure out a way to implement the changes slowly, and consider the concerns of the faculty involved as well as the negative impacts that the merger could have, this could be a very positive change in terms of higher enrollment, lower tuition costs, and better graduation rates. This could even lead the way for other struggling university systems to implement positive changes for the future of their schools as opposed to closing institutions. However, the process should slow down and be implemented with greater research and thought.
This editorial was written by Ariel Goronja based on the opinions of a Media Milwaukee editorial board.