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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Program cuts, suspensions aren’t off the table as UW-River Falls grapples with budget deficit

Enrollment, retention and campus services are key concerns for campus community members as the University of Wisconsin-River Falls deliberates how to confront its structural deficit.

Members of a University of Wisconsin-River Falls budget advisory committee are echoing campus members’ concerns in response to a delayed consultant report and budget cuts that could include program suspensions.

The committee is currently deliberating potential cost-cutting methods, according to individuals on a budget advisory committee and meeting documents obtained by The Daily Cardinal. Though discussions are in early stages, items on the table could include possible program suspensions and examinations of campus organization structures and shared services.

Revenue increases could come through higher student retention, summer and winter session courses, and alternate uses for campus spaces, like renting out unused spaces during the summer, according to committee members as well as potential committee subgroups identified Jan. 29.

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A slide indicating potential subgroups in a Jan. 29 presentation from Dave Ruhland, UW-River Falls vice chancellor for finance and administration.

The decisions facing UW-River Falls come after a tough state budget season for the UW System in 2023. Four two-year campuses have announced closures since March 2023, including the UW-Milwaukee Waukesha County campus on Monday. Other four-year campuses have instituted sweeping budget cuts. 

UW-River Falls Chancellor Maria Gallo created the 30-person University Budget Advisory Committee in February 2023 to hear campus feedback on funding concerns.

The university budget committee aims to target enrollment concerns and recommend cost-cutting and revenue-increasing measures to Gallo in the spring.

“We created the University Budget Advisory Committee to advise leadership on budget priorities, policies and processes and to ensure transparent and inclusive decision-making,” UW-River Falls spokesperson Julian Emerson told the Cardinal.

Trevor Lerum, a budget advisory committee representative from UW-River Falls’ Student Government Association’s finance committee, said he feels valued on the committee, particularly as a representative of student voices.

But others said the committee hasn’t felt transparent or effective. 

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“It just feels like it's a fake committee,” said Doug Margolis, a faculty representative on the budget advisory committee. Without more information to work with, particularly on the structural deficit, Margolis said the committee’s work has felt like “spinning a wheel.”

Delayed consultant report, increasing structural deficit

UW-River Falls, a campus serving around 5,410 students, currently faces a $2.9 million deficit, according to an August press release. 

However, some on the committee said the real number could be higher. Margolis suggested numbers of $3.2 million and $4 million were floated.

The committee was later given a $6 million figure to use during a budget exercise, which Emerson said isn’t the actual structural deficit. Lerum said the $6 million number would include addressing the structural deficit and setting UW-River Falls up to make revenue.

Still, Margolis questioned whether the numbers given to committee members have been accurate.

“In January, when the $6 million was floated, we were told that was the likely mark when the deficit from this year alone was added in,” Margolis said.

Deloitte, the consulting firm UW System hired to evaluate campuses’ financial sustainability, was meant to meet with the budget advisory committee in October to discuss observations from its audit, according to both Margolis and committee meeting notes from Sept. 25.

However, the full report was repeatedly delayed, according to Margolis. He said committee members were given a December or January date, which was later pushed back to April. 

According to Margolis, Gallo said UW System President Jay Rothman wanted to withhold the report after the Board of Regents meetings in April. Committee minutes from Feb. 26 show the committee is expected to receive the report after the April 4-5 Board of Regents meetings. 

Emerson said UW-River Falls’ work with Deloitte is “ongoing” as the two parties work to clarify data and identify information most pertinent to the university. 

“Some of the data we have found most compelling are already being shared with the committee to inform the group’s discussions,” Emerson added.

Neither Emerson nor a UW System spokesperson answered a question asking if Rothman had requested the report’s delay.

What could change?

Margolis said he is worried UW-River Falls could face the same program suspensions being considered at UW-Green Bay. 

According to Margolis, the committee weighed cutting general education requirements at UW-River Falls or raising tuition differentials. He said those ideas would hurt students’ experiences.

“The committee has also discussed aspects of our existing, ongoing assessment and review processes regarding programs, including general education,” Emerson said when asked if changes to general education requirements at UW-River Falls are planned.

The committee planned as of Jan. 29 to split into six subgroups to address methods for revenue or cost reduction, according to a presentation from David Ruhland, UW-River Falls vice chancellor for finance and administration. 

Potential areas of focus listed under the program array subgroup include program productivity, modifications and suspensions. 

Margolis, who referenced a suggestion Rothman offered to UW chancellors last year, said he worries UW-River Falls administrators might institute cuts to liberal arts rather than workforce development programs, which received investments in the past budget cycle.

“We were told that we would be placed in subgroups to work on specific ideas,” Margolis said. He said the subgroup ideas haven’t been examined beyond an initial brainstorming phase.

Margolis said the idea of cutting programs had been mentioned at many meetings, alongside mentions of low-enrollment programs and a need to be strategic. But he said he hasn’t heard of any specific programs being on the chopping board for suspensions.

“The brainstorming list included evaluating our program array — under the reducing expenses category. To me, that means cutting programs to better fund favored programs,” Margolis said.

Lerum said the budget advisory committee hopes to run a cost-benefit analysis of degree programs to identify if large enrollment programs are effective and if low-enrollment programs are valuable. 

The budget committee has already identified certain areas for cutting, Lerum said. “They’re potentially cutting lower-enrollment programs if they’re not valuable.”

Additionally, Lerum said some students in lower enrollment programs have expressed concerns to him that program or department cuts might make getting their degree “harder or just impossible.”

Though the committee is actively discussing cuts to programs — which Lerum said would mean the programs run at a “reduced capacity” with likely reduced staff — he said the committee hasn’t started discussing program suspensions, which would eliminate a program from UW-River Falls’ offerings, yet. 

Still, he said the committee hasn’t taken program suspensions off the table.

“I am of the opinion that everything should be on the table for discussion, including program cuts [or] suspensions,” Lerum said.

As a student majoring in business administration, Lerum said he feels the department won’t be “hit incredibly hard.” But the history department — where Lerum plans to receive a history minor — might be “more of a concern” due to its small size, Lerum said.

Emerson said the university is “not currently discussing program suspensions” when asked if program suspensions are possible at UW-River Falls.

“Although introduced as a concept at the 1/29 meeting, no sub-groups have been formed,” Emerson said. “The points listed on the slide… were intended as possible topics of conversation should such sub-groups be formed.”

According to Feb. 26 meeting minutes, committee members are currently “encouraged” to think about subgroups they’d like to be a part of for upcoming subgroup work.

Key budget obstacles

Enrollment remains a key concern. Full-time enrollments declined from 5,563 in fall of 2018 to an expected 4,369 in fall of 2024. Meanwhile, expenses rose from $71 million in 2018 to $79 million in 2022, according to a Deloitte presentation from December. 

Expenses are projected to slowly increase. But salaries, wages and benefits as well as supplies and services are expected to show marginal growth, according to the presentation. 

Deloitte highlighted section size increases and lower-than-average student to instructional and noninstructional staff ratios as potential efficiency gains. 

Deloitte identified student retention as the largest contributor to overall enrollment decline. Two-year retention rates at UW-River Falls have continually trailed UW System averages since 2013 — excluding UW-Madison — by approximately 2%, according to Deloitte. 

During the 2021-22 academic year — the most recent data available in the Deloitte report —  UW-River Falls’ two-year retention rate was 73%, compared to a system average of 75%. 

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A slide from a Dec. 2023 presentation.

Those retention concerns are exacerbated for underrepresented students, whose retention rate at UW-River Falls lies at 63%. That’s compared to 74% for all students from 2021 to 2023. 

The Deloitte presentation encouraged investigating underrepresented student retention, especially given UW-River Falls’ proximity to a “racially diverse metropolitan area.”

Underrepresented UW-River Falls students have a 35.3% six-year graduation rate, compared to 66.5% for non-underrepresented students. Those numbers that fall at 55.1% and 73.4% in UW System averages for new freshmen in 2017, respectively. 

Though retention remains a budgetary concern, Gov. Tony Evers’ recent passage of a tuition reciprocity bill allowing UW System schools to retain full shares of tuition revenue from Minnesota could dampen some of UW-River Falls’ financial woes. The bill is predicted to protect the school from losing $3-4 million in revenue annually, Gallo said in a February press release. 

“We’re really happy that that went through,” Lerum said. Revenue could go up if enrollment increases, he added.

But the passage of Minnesota’s North Star Promise scholarship, which would fully cover tuition for any Minnesota student who filled out a FAFSA form and whose family receives less than $80,000 per year, could lessen the benefits of Wisconsin’s tuition reciprocity. 

According to Sept. 25 committee meeting minutes — under an entry titled “MN North Star Promise: Threat on the horizon” — 13% of UW-River Falls’ 2022-23 enrollment would be eligible for the program, or a quarter of its overall Minnesota students.

Although Gallo estimated $3-4 million, Dec. 19 meeting notes said the budget advisory committee plans that reciprocity changes will bring in at least $2 million in revenue when the North Star Promise is factored in.

The school is accordingly targeting recruitment efforts to slow effects from the North Star Program and become a “destination” campus for specific programs, organizations or athletics, UW-River Falls Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs David Travis said at the meeting. 

“We’re developing a lot of strategies to work with it,” Lerum said. “A lot of it remains to be seen how big of a threat it will be. I’m not one for playing up threats until they happen.”

Some campus members feel left out

Neil Kraus, a UW-River Falls political science professor, said students, staff and faculty are anxious to hear about the report. 

“We don’t know what’s going on. In the absence of information, people are pretty nervous about what’s to come,” Kraus said.

Increasing student-facing costs could damage interest in the university, Kraus said. For a school looking to increase its enrollment, that’s not a promising prospect, he added. 

But his biggest concern is that expectations for minimized funding will remain the standard going forward.

“A Deloitte representative told a large group of people at UWRF that we had to be ‘realistic’ about public funding in the future,” Kraus said. 

“That's how austerity works,” Kraus said. Although the state Legislature adopted new legislative maps, Kraus said the UW System is continuing as if nothing has changed related to its prospects for state funding.  

Lerum said students are primarily concerned about increased expenses, especially for tuition. That’s left some feeling left out of the conversation.

“[Students are] just kind of apathetic toward the whole thing,” Lerum said. “They’re like ‘oh we’re just going to have to pay more, what’s the point of giving our opinion? Administration isn’t going to listen,’ feelings like that.”

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.


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