Wisconsin idea redux

Restructured UW System aims to strengthen higher ed pathways

Posted on Nov 1, 2017 :: Up Front
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

On the surface, all may well appear normal for incoming freshmen at the region’s UW campuses next fall. Behind the scenes, higher education will be very different.

The University of Wisconsin System has proposed a restructuring of higher education in the state that will merge the structures of the traditional four-year campuses with the state’s two-year colleges. The initial result will be larger universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with multiple campuses that preserve the various paths students can take on their way to a college degree.

But university leaders are anticipating much more.

“We see it as three campuses under one university,” says Andrew Leavitt, chancellor of UW-Oshkosh. “We see this as a tremendous opportunity for the students and for the citizens of the region. This will create multiple pathways to get your degree.”

Leavitt and other school leaders envision the change — and the anticipated efficiencies and economies of scale created — will lead to not only expanded routes to degrees for prospective students but a more flexible approach to providing the regional economy with a highly trained workforce.

“I believe the larger institutions can learn a thing or two from the two-year campuses in terms of being responsive to the needs of the workforce,” Leavitt says. “I’m looking forward to learning from some of their approaches.”

The restructuring, which was announced in October, will go before the Wisconsin Board of Regents when it meets in November.

There are 13 two-year UW Colleges campuses located statewide, including several in the New North region. UW System President Ray Cross has proposed integrating those campuses into neighboring UW four-year institutions, effective July 1, 2018. For example, UW-Fox Valley and UW-Fond du Lac would become part of UW-Oshkosh, while UW-Manitowoc, UW-Marinette and UW-Sheboygan would join with UW-Green Bay.

Cross also will propose assigning divisions within UW-Extension
to UW-Madison and UW System Administration.

The proposal comes amid declining enrollments for the two-year campuses in which the student body at the UW Colleges has shrunk by an average of 32 percent since 2010. Coupled with the state’s changing demographics — we are getting older, not younger — the current model was no longer sustainable.

Yet, the affordability of the two-year campuses, and their close relationship with many regional employers, makes them a valuable entry point to higher education, particularly for first-generation families, low-income residents and non-traditional students.

System leaders are quick to point out the value of the UW campuses and say they are resources that must be preserved, which the restructuring will ensure.

“The changes would actually open many more doors for students; students would have four campuses instead of one,” UW-Green Bay Chancellor Gary L. Miller says. “This provides many opportunities for students, with the potential of creating even more.”

As outlined by Cross, the objectives of the restructured system include:

• Maintaining and expanding access to higher education by offering more general education and upper-level courses at the integrated branch campuses

• Identifying and reducing barriers to transferring credits within the UW System

• Maintaining affordability by continuing current tuition levels at the branch campuses post-merger for general education courses

• Further standardizing and regionalizing administrative operations and services to more efficiently use resources

• Leveraging resources and shared talent at institutions to get more students into and through the educational pipeline, better aligning the university to meet Wisconsin’s projected workforce needs

Cross says the proposal will avoid closing any UW Colleges campuses while maintaining a university presence in those communities. The UW Colleges online program will move to UW System Administration
under the Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning umbrella.
The UW-Extension programs, including 4-H, will be incorporated into UW-Madison.

“We want to leverage the strength of our four-year institutions at a time when overall enrollments at UW Colleges are declining,” Cross says. “Our goal is to expand access and provide more educational opportunities for more students, while ensuring our faculty are appropriately organized and supported.”

The details of the restructuring, and how faculty and administration will be utilized, and how students will access classes and resources remain unknown for now. Leavitt expects it will be a two-way relationship, with faculty and resources from four-year schools being made available at the UW Colleges campuses and students perhaps attending the location that best fits their need.

He also sees the opportunity for more programs such as the collaborative Engineering Technology program that allows a student to start studies toward an engineering degree at any one of the two-year campuses or technical colleges in the region and finish it at UW-Oshkosh or UW-Green Bay.

“I think this might be a great opportunity for programs like that to expand,” Leavitt says. “There is a lot of work to be done on the distribution of programming.”