UW-Colleges Restructuring Will Broaden Access to Education and Keep Doors Open
In early October 2017, the University of Wisconsin system proposed a major restructuring project that would see the state’s two-year colleges merged into the state’s public four-year universities, effectively creating a system of campuses and satellite campuses across the state. Still in the proposal phase, the merger will need to gain Board approval before it’s enacted. In this interview, Cathy Sandeen discusses the reasons behind the proposed restructuring and shares her thoughts on how Wisconsin’s public two-year colleges will change—and where they must stay the same—post-merger.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the key factors driving the potential merger between UW’s two- and four-year institutions?
Cathy Sandeen (CS): The absolute primary factor is that devastating, declining population of younger people in the state of Wisconsin. We are a rust belt state and what all of these states are seeing is a steep decline in the number of high school age-students combined with a declining birth rate. Even though we do serve non-traditional students, the traditional-age students are still the biggest component of our enrollment and we have suffered a very serious decline.
What this restructuring will do is take the thirteen two-year campuses that have been combined in the UW-Colleges system and then link one or two or even three of those two-year campuses with a four-year institution. This will allow the colleges to keep their doors open, create opportunities for the larger institutions to provide additional resources, and maybe leverage the brands of the four-year universities to attract more students to the college campuses.
Over time the plan is to provide more bachelor-level degrees on the smaller campuses, which will be great for people in smaller communities to be able to access and complete their four-year degrees.
Evo: Do you expect to see any closures come about as a result of this restructuring of the entire system?
CS: No, our system president has stated that none of the campuses will be closed. This is a strategy to keep them open.
Evo: How will the role of the campuses currently in the UW-Colleges system change with the restructuring?
CS: We just announced this restructuring in early October and there are many details to be worked out. I believe there will be a strong push from our Board of Regents to maintain the two-year campuses as open-enrollment, access-focused institutions. If that is the case, that will really preserve their mission and they will continue to be institutions that students will transfer from into bachelor degree programs. Using this model, learners will start at a smaller, more welcoming place and then transfer to a larger institution to complete their degree.
There will be changes and those changes are completely up to the new chancellors who are going to be adopting these two-year campuses. However, I do think that some of the basics of the mission of UW Colleges will be preserved.
Evo: What kind of positive impact might the UW universities have on the colleges?
CS: The main positive impact would be the opportunity to provide more four-year degrees in Wisconsin’s smaller communities. There are a lot of people in those smaller communities who really can’t travel far to continue their education. The merger with four-year schools will allow these smaller campuses across the state to expand their program array.
Evo: How will this merger impact people that aren’t necessarily looking to earn a degree but maybe looking for a sub-degree offering, whether that’s workforce training or a certificate program?
CS: We currently have four continuing education directors across the state system who are responsible for that non-degree professional development education, and because it’s so important in our state to help prepare the workforce I would imagine that those programs will continue. Perhaps they’ll even grow bigger with the help and support and ideas of the new institutions.
This is a real advantage the two-year campuses bring to the four-year institutions in terms of their community outreach. Through these satellite campuses they’ll really be able to build up their network of supporters and advocates in these wider, distributed regions.
Evo: How would the proposed restructuring impact the UW-Extension?
CS: UW-Extension currently contains four different divisions. One is Cooperative Extension, which takes the research from the university and makes it accessible to the people of Wisconsin. We also have a division for business and entrepreneurship, and that oversees the federal contract for small business development centers throughout the state and a number of other programs to start and grow businesses. The third division is called Broadcast and Media Innovation, and that’s the home of Wisconsin Public Radio and public television. The fourth division is Continuing Education, Outreach and eLearning, and that’s the home of UW-Flexible Option degree.
Under this restructure, the various divisions are going to be placed in new administrative homes. Cooperative Extension will move to UW-Madison, which is the land-grant university where it was originally founded. They already have really strong ties with the research faculty at UW-Madison, so that move makes a lot of sense. The other divisions will go under UW-System Administration.
It’s important to note that this proposal still needs to go to the Board before it is adopted, and it was driven by challenges facing the UW-Colleges. The divisions of UW-Extension are doing very well—they’re not in any kind of financial deficit and they are innovative in how they serve people, communities and companies. As such, they’re likely going to be kept intact in their new homes, and there should be zero interruption in programs and what we’re doing in Extension.
Evo: Even in the situation of a merger, what aspects of the two-year institutions should not change?
CS: The two-year institutions definitely serve a distinctly different segment of students than the four-year institutions do in the state of Wisconsin. Currently in the UW colleges, 58 percent of students are first-generation students, 35 percent are considered low income, almost 20 percent have dependents—either young children or older family members—for whom they’re responsible. The most astonishing statistic about our students, to me, is 81 percent of the students at UW Colleges work, and 16 percent of them work full time. Even though they tend to be younger, or even right out of high school, they still are very much non-traditional students and they’re just one problem or one challenge away from dropping out or delaying their education.
It’s really important to the state of Wisconsin that we keep doors open to students like these. That means the faculty and staff who work with these students must really understand and acknowledge the unique challenges that they have. That will be very important to preserve.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the proposed merger and what it will mean for the UW colleges and extension?
CS: The main advantage to this merger is the potential of providing some greater financial stability to these two-year campuses. These campuses are important to the small communities in which they are based and keeping those doors open is very important to me as a first-generation college graduate myself. My focus, every day, is on providing access and opportunity. I’m just elated that, through this restructuring, we will be able to provide greater future stability and sustainability for these important campuses in these smaller communities even though we have suffered budget cuts and enrollment decline.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.