In Wisconsin, a merger can’t save a community college

In 2017, the University of Wisconsin system merged the operations of all 13 of its community colleges with one of its seven public universities. The move was intended to bolster funding for two-year colleges, which, like a growing number of institutions in some parts of the country, were facing steady enrollment declines and dwindling state appropriations.

But that effort wasn’t enough to save one community college. The system’s president announced Tuesday that its campus in Richland Center, Wis., will stop teaching all degree programs. Programs are instead offered about 60 miles away at the University of Wisconsin in Platteville — an institution the college merged with five years ago — or another community college campus.

The system remains committed to its branch campuses and provides “as broad access as possible,” system president Jay Rothman wrote in a letter to Platteville campus interim chancellor Tammy Evetovich. “There will come a time when financial pressures and low enrollment will make in-person graduate academic tutoring more acceptable,” Rothman continued.

Rothman wrote that the campus will not necessarily close, but may only offer adult education or other non-degree courses. The university must develop a plan to both shift instruction and determine what will become of the small college’s staff. The Richland Center’s directory page lists 13 faculty members and a dozen other staff members and administrators.

Even if graduate programs at the university continue, the distance from downtown Richland could create a major barrier for current or future students in the area, said Nicholas W. Hillman, a professor of educational administration and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Online tutoring may also be available for many programs, Hillman said, but rural areas of the state don’t have access to broadband Internet and some programs that require hands-on experience are better suited for in-person tutoring.

A spokeswoman for the Richland Center campus referred questions to the Platteville communications officer. A spokesman for Platteville did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the university system forwarded the president’s letter but declined to make anyone available for comment.

Enrollment at the Richland center has plummeted from 567 students in 2014 to just over a tenth of that number this fall, according to system data. Few colleges have lost students at this rate, but the problems associated with the small Wisconsin campus are widespread in the sector.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, community college enrollment had been slowly declining nationally since 2011 and worsened during the pandemic. In the spring semester of 2022, according to federal data, there were almost 8 percent fewer enrollees than in the spring of 2021. Last year, it had fallen by 10 percent.

Additionally, the drop in birth rates since the 2008 recession is expected to hit college enrollment in the middle of the decade, leading to even steeper enrollment declines at many institutions, especially in the upper Midwest and Northeast. The situation is particularly acute in rural areas as populations migrate to more urban areas, making it difficult for states to afford a full complement of colleges for shrinking populations.

As a result, campus mergers or consolidations are increasingly common. Among the latter are Vermont, where the state merged three state college administrations, and Pennsylvania, where the state’s system of higher education is consolidating six of its 14 universities into just two entities.

But the end of tutorials at the Richland center shows the limitations of such efforts, Hillman said. While declining enrollment is a problem, Wisconsin also hasn’t done a good job of coordinating the academic offerings of the state’s 16 technical colleges, 14 universities and 13 community colleges.

“These are problems that continue,” Hillman said, “without a statewide plan or interagency coordination.”

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