UW branch campuses face an alarming decrease in student attendance as enrollment rates have dropped 42% since the 2018 merger, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on Friday. Enrollment at two-year branch campuses has also fallen, with state leaders crediting the COVID-19 pandemic as a major reason for steep drops in enrollment.
Questions as to why this is occurring have been flowing, and students and the UW System raise concerns for all UW campuses.
According to the report, enrollment has dropped from 9,741 total students enrolled across UW System campuses in fall 2018 to 5,672 total students in fall 2021.
Despite enrollment falling for branch campuses, the University of Wisconsin-Madison enrollment has increased about 35.2% since the 2018 merger. In this time, UW-Madison has welcomed two record-breaking freshman cohorts, ushering in the largest freshman class in the university’s history in 2021.
UW-Milwaukee’s two-year branch campus in West Best and UW-Oshkosh’s branch campus in Menasha also took hits to their enrollment, both falling by 23%.
Tommy Thompson, UW System president, cited ongoing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic as a large reason for drops in enrollment. According to Thompson, much of the drops in enrollment numbers can be attributed to undergraduate students being pushed towards online programs as classes were put online at the beginning of the pandemic.
Students across UW System campuses have also cited COVID-19 and online schooling for a drop in enrollment. Jordan Witzel, student at UW-Eau Claire, told The Daily Cardinal that stronger online programs might hinder enrollment progress in the future.
“I think [enrollment numbers will] continue to get worse if COVID-19 isn’t resolved,” said Witzel.
The UW System noted that the pandemic had a $720 million impact on state colleges across Wisconsin. While federal stimulus packages have aided four-year institutions, the deficit has fallen on smaller UW System campuses.
In July 2020, the UW System introduced a measure to strengthen online learning with the Online Learning Initiative, a $2 million investment in professional development opportunities, technology training and financial support for technology across UW campuses.
However, student perspectives highlight affordability as a main decision point for pursuing online programs outside of the UW System.
“If other prestigious schools, technical colleges, and online opportunities offer a better job/career path for less money [than a four-year institution], people are going to continue to choose that route,” said Witzel. “By doing [classes] from home, the option of receiving an education and saving money is a possibility.”
Drops in enrollment across UW System campuses are higher than the national average. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, nationwide undergraduate enrollment fell by 3.2% from last year. Undergraduate enrollment in the state of Wisconsin fell by 4.9% compared to last year.