College News

Double-digit enrollment decreases at all UW System branch campuses lead to search for causes, solutions

Enrollment at the UW System’s 13 branch campuses declined by 28.6 percent for fall 2019, administrators citing explanations such as demographic trends and restructuring transitions.

Enrollment at the UW System’s 13 branch campuses declined by 28.6 percent for fall 2019, administrators citing explanations such as demographic trends and restructuring transitions.

Image By: Will Cioci

The UW System’s 13 branch campuses — two-year institutions linked with larger four-year institutions — had a 28.6 percent total decrease in enrollment for the fall 2019 semester. 

Most branch campuses, all of which had decreases, lost between 20 and 40 percent of their students compared to last year. Drops in enrollment ranged from the smallest, 11.3 percent at UW-Whitewater at Rock County, to the largest, 57.7 percent at UW-Platteville at Richland. 

The UW System reported a 2.6 percent decline across all of its campuses, a decrease in line with national trends, according to a System press release. The UW System cited fewer high school graduates and more young adults going directly into the workforce. 

UW System President Ray Cross called the overall System decline “not unexpected given the demographic trends,” a sentiment shared at many individual campuses. 

At UW-Oshkosh, branch campuses Fond du Lac and Fox Cities’ enrollment decreased 24.9 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively. Chancellor Andrew Leavitt agreed with Cross these numbers were “not surprising” considering national and state trends.

“We must account for a historically low number of graduating high school students and hot state and regional economies that offer an array of workforce opportunities,” Leavitt said in an email. 

UW-Oshkosh’s branch campuses are designed to handle fluctuations in students coming out of and back into college, Leavitt said. Even with these factors at work, the campuses “just about hit our overall enrollment expectations this fall.”

However, with such comparatively large enrollment drops, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of material sciences and engineering Matthew Jewell believes there are a combination of factors involved. 

“I think it's important that we don't try and isolate one thing,” Jewell said. “President Cross is certainly correct that demographics and the strong economy right now — which leads more people to go into jobs instead of pursuing higher education. Those things certainly play a role, there's no question, but I don't think by themselves they can explain these really large drops.”

One of these factors is a change in the way online students are counted, according to UW-Eau Claire Enrollment Management Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor Billy Felz. 

In 2018, UW System restructuring changed UW Colleges Online into UW College Courses Online as part of the shift that made two-year institutions branch campuses of four-year institutions. 

During an interim year, the UW System dispersed students from UW Colleges Online to the new branch campuses and counted them with the campuses’ 2018 enrollment — despite them never being directly affiliated with the campuses, Felz said. 

In 2019, the students moved to campuses participating in UW College Courses Online, causing the enrollment drop at institutions like UW-Eau Claire at Barron County.  

Without counting the UW Colleges Online students in UW-Eau Claire at Barron County’s 2018 enrollment total, Felz reported a decrease from 503 students to 439 students this year, a decrease of 64 instead of the System’s report of 208. Felz’s numbers shift UW-Eau Claire’s branch campus’ decline from 32.4 percent to 14.6 percent.

A 2013 state funding cut also caused the UW System to be more dependent on tuition dollars, Jewell said. 

The cut resulted in campuses needing to bring in more students or, at a minimum, maintain their current student levels. Jewell said this works best for larger institutions like UW-Madison but poses a challenge for the branch campuses, which are often located in small communities. 

“I'm concerned that that process of being more tuition-dependent and just letting market forces decide which campuses are going to be healthy and which are not going to be healthy — that process I feel like is largely happening without a real strategic discussion about 'Is this good for the state?' 'Is this good for the UW System?' 'Is this good for students?'” Jewell said.

Without this state support, campuses have a harder time maintaining programs and course availability, Jewell said. One easy way for these institutions to save money, he said, is larger class sizes. Again, this is a change that the larger universities can absorb more easily. 

“At Madison, there's already lots of really large classes. A few more large classes aren't going to make a big difference,” Jewell said. “But as some of these smaller campuses are being asked to teach more large classes, it's really changing the culture of campus. It's changing who the campuses are and how faculty and students interact — and that's really a shame.”

But some employees of UW System schools don’t see the declines in branch campus enrollments as quite so dire. 

UW-Green Bay Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Michael Alexander said the university and its three branch campuses as “one university with four campuses.” By looking at the data this way, Green Bay and its four locations increased enrollment by 3.4 percent, despite each branch campus’ drop. 

Alexander does acknowledge what the branch campus numbers show, however — UW-Green Bay at Manitowoc decreased 29.9 percent, UW-Green Bay at Marinette decreased 35.3 percent and UW-Green Bay at Sheboygan decreased 38.2 percent. 

He said while there are a combination of factors, restructuring underneath the UW-Green Bay umbrella and shifting the programming toward four-year degrees are changes that could have contributed. 

“The community is used to looking at them as two-year universities, and we're looking at them quite differently,” Alexander said. “We're looking at them as four-year universities, and [it] just kind of takes time for the word to get out about the change.”

UW-Platteville, which has two branch campuses, is working to attract more students through additional degree programs, like in food in agriculture or business administration. The university launched both programs a few months ago, according to UW-Platteville Communications Director Paul Erickson.

“To address the ever-changing dynamics in higher education, UW-Platteville is aggressively seeking more and creative ways to engage students, such as alternative delivery methods (i.e.,more online opportunities, collaborative programs, hybrid classes), increased retention efforts, new digital marketing campaigns and additional programs,” Erickson said in an email.

Lower enrollment can also be combated through a “full-throated public defense” of the value of these branch campuses, Jewell said. Support from both the general public and the legislature is what will get these smaller institutions through the ebbs and flows of changing enrollment numbers, he said. 

“Now that these two-year campuses are now attached to four-year campuses, there's maybe a tendency or a temptation to say, 'Well, we'll just let UW-Eau Claire figure that out,' 'We'll just let UW-Green Bay figure that out,' and make it more of a local issue,” Jewell said. “It's important that we understand this is a state-wide issue, and the whole state and the whole UW System should be invested in trying to find a solution.”

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