- The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Washington County campus would combine with a nearby public technical college under a part of a state budget proposal lawmakers advanced last week.
- The Joint Committee on Finance adopted a motion Thursday to move UWM-Washington County from its current designation as a branch campus of UW-Milwaukee to a “joint Moraine Park Technical College/Washington County operation.”
- Moraine Park Technical College’s West Bend campus is about 4 miles north of UWM-Washington County. The proposal would give the University of Wisconsin System $3.4 million to assist with the transition, while requiring the system’s merger plan to include matching funds from private donations and Washington County.
Republican state Sen. Duey Stroebel, vice-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, said it would be inaccurate to describe the consolidation as a merger.
“The idea would be to close the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – Washington County (UW-WC) campus,” Stroebel said via email Monday.
The future use of the Washington County-owned campus buildings hasn’t yet been determined, Stroebel said, adding that they could be torn down, used for other purposes, sold, or assumed by Moraine Park Technical College. Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann approached Stroebel with the request, according to Stroebel.
The $3.4 million will not be spent unless “there was a plan upon which all parties could agree to close the campus,” he said.
“If these discussions do not result in a workable deal that is good for students and taxpayers, the Joint Finance Committee will take no action and the money will return to the general fund,” Stroebel said.
Details of the budget proposal were scant, and the motion appears to have caught university officials off guard.
Ethan Schuh, a University of Wisconsin spokesperson, said the system did not request this motion and would want to learn more about its intent.
“We do not have a timeline and there are too many unknowns at this time for us to speak to the motion,” Schuh said in an emailed statement.
A UWM spokesperson echoed those comments.
“Neither UWM nor UW System requested the motion approved by the Joint Committee on Finance last week,” the UWM spokesperson said via email. “We are carefully following the motion’s progress as the budget process continues, and we’ll update the UWM community as we know more about how it could impact our Washington County campus.”
The spokesperson added that there would be no immediate changes for the Washington County campus in the fall, and that classes will be held as scheduled.
Folding the UWM-Washington County campus into a technical college wouldn’t be the only consolidation effort underway at the University of Wisconsin System. Late last year, the system announced it was ending face-to-face classes at UW-Platteville’s Richland campus by the beginning of the next academic year.
The system’s president, Jay Rothman, said the decision came after enrollment at the campus declined to only 60 degree-seeking students. However, Rothman also charged UW-Platteville’s leader with crafting a plan to continue the mission of the Richland campus, including by offering online courses for adult learners.
From 2017 to 2018, the University of Wisconsin System underwent another major consolidation, merging its 13 two-year colleges into nearby four-year universities. The enrollment at its two-year colleges had been declining ahead of the decision, falling 22.3% year over year in fall 2016.
That consolidation resulted in the Washington County campus, along with one in Waukesha, becoming branches of UWM. However, those mergers don’t appear to have stemmed enrollment losses, according to a recent report from a Washington County task force on local higher education.
Enrollment is low at UWM-Washington County, with 332 students in 2022, down 55.4% from 2018, when the system pursued the two-year mergers, the report found.
The task force also contended that UWM-Washington County and Moraine Park Technical College are directly competing for students.
“Two sets of administrative overheads are being paid for by taxpayers,” the task force said in its report. “One would suffice if consolidation of the two campuses took place.”
Although the task force recommended that the two colleges join together, Moraine Park Technical College put out a statement in response saying it did not “see a need to formally merge.”
Enrollment has also been plummeting at Moraine Park Technical College, according to federal data. In fall 2021, the college had 3,269 students, down 46.2% compared to fall 2012.
The University of Wisconsin System isn’t the only public college network pursuing consolidation.
Pennsylvania’s state-owned university system recently merged six colleges into just two in the face of declining enrollment. Meanwhile, Vermont State University was formed from a merger of three of the state’s public colleges. And Connecticut is merging its 12 community colleges into one single accredited institution.