Kayla Romanovs-Malovrh, on the brink of a sharp decision, met with her academic advisor a week before the deadline in hopes of transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s engineering program.
Romanovs-Malovrh first applied to the program in 2021. But she did not get off the waitlist due to the high volume of applicants during her admission year.
In the meantime, Romanovs-Malovrh who grew up in Wausau, chose to live in Menomonie, a city of less than 20,000 located hours away from Madison, to study mechanical engineering at UW-Stout.
“If you don't get into Madison, where can you really go in the state of Wisconsin?" she told The Daily Cardinal. “Then you have to find other routes, less-known schools that don't put as much funding into their engineering program. So you might not get as good of an education.”
In-state resident students like Romanovs-Malovrh have increasingly struggled to snag a spot at UW-Madison’s prestigious engineering program.
Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison Media Relations and Strategic Communication director, told the Cardinal in an email roughly half the engineering undergraduates are from in-state. To expand annual enrollment, the university would need to secure funding for a larger building to fit the needs of students.
“Currently, the college can accept fewer than 20% of its applicants. The new building would provide the College of Engineering the space to grow undergraduate enrollment to 5,500 students and graduate student enrollment to 2,000 students,” Tyrell said.
But in May, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget-writing committee slashed $197 million in funding for a UW-Madison engineering building project approved by Gov. Tony Evers in the state’s 2023-25 capital budget.
UW-Madison’s College of Engineering is ranked the 8th-best public engineering college and 15th overall in the United States, according to its website.
Tyrell emphasized UW-Madison wants to be able to compete nationally with other ranked universities to admit more talented students.
“The ability to graduate more engineers from UW-Madison allows the university to contribute additional engineers to the Wisconsin and U.S. workforce, which in turn benefits the economy. Wisconsin business leaders are asking for more top-quality engineers to meet their workforce demands,” she said.
Rising selectivity forces some to gamble on a ‘painful’ transfer process
Republicans’ move to reject funding for UW-Madison’s proposed engineering building comes after years of funding neglect that have forced the university to turn to out-of-state enrollment and become more selective.
According to UW System data, out-of-state enrollment at UW-Madison jumped more than 80% from 2013 to 2022. In-state enrollment sank by roughly 3.4% over the same period.
For Romanovs-Malovrh, tougher competition meant going to UW-Stout instead of Madison.
While she said she enjoyed UW-Stout’s hands-on labs and smaller lecture sizes, Romanovs-Malovrh chose to transfer to Madison for a scholarship, more challenging classes and its academic reputation.
“The reason I waited so long was because I didn't know what I wanted to do. And at the last minute, I really thought about it. And I was like, ‘yeah, I think this is a great opportunity. And I think I should take it even though it's a scary opportunity,’” she said.
Immediately after receiving acceptance in 2023, Romanov-Malovrh’s transfer experience became an obstacle to success.
“Painful. The easiest word to say is painful,” she said about the experience.
After filling out eight forms to explain why her UW-Stout credits match with UW-Madison’s, the College of Engineering declared she did not meet progression standards for the major.
Students who are directly admitted into UW-Madison’s College of Engineering have the option to change majors by the end of their first year, according to its website. After year one, students must meet a set of requirements, such as courses and GPA requirements, to continue as an engineering major.
Romanovs-Malovrh satisfied the prerequisites for the major, but UW-Madison declared her Calculus II course fell short of the university's standards. UW-Stout's Calculus II curriculum was not as "in-depth" as they would have wanted, forcing the junior to take a credit examination in spring of 2024 for a chance to test out of the class.
Romanovs-Malovrh said failing to meet progression standards as a junior triggered a myriad of issues for her, including the option to select a separate minor or major outside the College of Engineering.
“I can only take certain classes in the College of Engineering, and I can't take them,” Romanovs-Malovrh said. “I was trying to get a data science certificate. They said I couldn't until I've met progression, I can't at all.”
Vos claims branch schools can take national students, funding says otherwise
CEOs of over 40 companies in Wisconsin who put forth nearly half of the engineering building project funding ($147 million) said in a November open letter they would withdraw money if the state does not lend financial assistance.
The advertisement followed the university’s worries that its aging facilities meant Wisconsin’s engineering programs were falling behind competitors in other states. The way to reverse that trend, university and business leaders said, is a state investment in the engineering workforce.
“This expansion will enable the university to serve more Wisconsin students and employers and will assist in the recruitment and retention of top-tier faculty members, sustaining its excellence in research and education,” the letter read.
Still, Vos told reporters in November he is not concerned about losing state engineers if UW-Madison’s engineering project remains unfunded through 2024.
Vos said UW-Platteville and UW-Whitewater have “spots for kids all over the country” to study engineering beyond UW-Madison.
“I think many of us here went to other campuses, so to think that the only place to get a great engineering degree is by attending UW-Madison, it’s a fallacy,” he added.
But Romanovs-Malovrh said other UW System campuses “would probably not” have the capacity to take national students.
“Most of the [UW-Stout] population was either from Minnesota or Wisconsin. I met maybe a few people from out of state, but most of the people I met that were from out of state were on the gymnastics team,” she said.
Additionally, Romanovs-Malovrh said she was not aware of the funding cut.
She said it would be nice for the UW-Stout engineering program to receive more funding. According to Romanovs-Malovrh, there are times when classes taught by one professor create bottlenecks that delay graduation.
The Legislature’s budget-writing committee also cut $32 million from the UW System’s 2023-25 budget in June. University officials on Nov. 6 offered a plan to recoup the lost funds, but Vos said lawmakers will not restore the money until UW schools cut diversity programs.
Romanovs-Malovrh also said a funding cut to UW-Madison’s engineering program could impact the “academic rigor” as Madison has a standard to uphold.
While she is still not a declared engineering major, she does not regret transferring to UW-Madison.
“Knowing me I probably still would have done it because I'm just like, fuck it. Let's do it. Sounds like a challenge,” Romanovs-Malovrh said. “I'm actually enjoying my experience, even though it hasn't been maybe the best experience,” she said.
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.