UWM’s Washington County Work Group: Final Recommendations

Final Recommendations

Respectfully submitted to Chancellor Mark Mone, August 24, 2023

Professor Greg Ahrenhoerster, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, CGS

Chief Government Relations Officer Keri Duce, Government Relations

Associate Vice Chancellor Kay Eilers, Enrollment Management

Associate Professor Ron Gulotta, Waukesha Campus Administrator and CGS Faculty Senator

Vice Chancellor Olivia Hwang, Marketing, Communications and University Relations

Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Courtney O’Connell, CGS

(Chair) Professor Jason Puskar, College of Letters and Science; Academic Affairs Associate

Professor Stephane Scholz, CGS Administrative Advisory Committee representative and CGS Faculty Senator

1. Introduction

The Washington County Executive’s Task Force formed in October 2022 to assess the prospects of UWM at Washington County in the wake of a decade of declining enrollments. It concluded that UWM at Washington County and Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC) should effectively merge operations under the governance of MPTC, combining two-year associate-level technical and liberal arts education in a single institution.

Because the Task Force did not include representatives from UWM as voting members, our participation in the process was limited until the formation of this Work Group. The Task Force recommendations were ambitious, but because they were not fully informed by the institutions involved, they were also partial and general. We see our work as continuing the efforts begun by the Task Force but with additional understanding of those complexities particular to higher education.

Charged by UWM’s chancellor in May 2023, the Work Group met 12 times between May and August in open meetings often attended by members of the community. The chancellor charged the group with evaluating the Washington County Task Force recommendations, and issuing its own recommendations about the future of UWM at Washington County. To that end, the Work Group engaged a wide range of stakeholders to learn more about the state of higher education in Washington County and the challenges and opportunities ahead. These stakeholders included city and county elected officials, students and faculty, the chair of the Washington County Task Force, K–12 school superintendents, the Washington County Campus Foundation, leadership from Moraine Park Technical College and UWM at Washington County, UWM budget and finance experts, representatives from the Hartford and West Bend Chambers of Commerce, leaders of other UW System campuses, dual enrollment experts, and representatives from the UWM registrar’s office. Many of these stakeholders attended full meetings of the Work Group; in other cases, delegates from the group met with stakeholders and reported back to the group in full meetings. We are exceedingly grateful for the time and effort of the many people who spoke with us. In addition, the group administered two surveys, one to the faculty and staff of the UWM College of General Studies (CGS) and one to prospective, current, and past students at the UWM Washington County campus.

We agree with some of the Task Force’s findings, such as the decline in the quality of campus life, the nature of looming demographic challenges, and the changing shape of the higher education market. We also agree with its general conclusion that UWM at Washington County cannot continue as it is. However, other findings differed from those of the Task Force, and our recommendations do not involve a merger with MPTC, but rather fuller integration with UWM.

2. Findings

The Work Group bases its recommendations on these key facts:

Enrollment Declines: As the Task Force noted, enrollment at UWM at Washington County has declined from 744 students to 332 students (55 percent) since 2018 when UW System merged all two-year colleges with four-year receiving campuses. Other two-year campuses also have seen similar enrollment declines.[1] Because counting practices differ from campus to campus, comparisons are difficult, but in general it seems that roughly half of the two-year campuses have seen enrollment declines greater than 50 percent since 2018, and three have seen declines greater than 60 percent. These trends are thus not particular to UWM at Washington County. They also show no sign of abating in the short term. Currently at UWM at Washington County, enrollment for fall 2023 is trending about 14 percent lower than the previous year.

As enrollment declined at UWM at Washington County, tuition revenue also fell, so more revenue from state appropriations had to be shifted from the main campus to the branch campuses and CGS. We regard this as unsustainable, and we conclude that CGS no longer has the resources to manage two branch campuses on its own.

We agree with the Task Force conclusions that enrollment declines are driven by factors largely beyond control, including demographic changes, the availability of college credit for high school students through AP and dual enrollment programs, and competition from well-paying jobs in a tight labor market. We would add one additional important factor: skepticism about the value of higher education, despite the fact that the economic advantages of college have never been clearer. For all these reasons, there are fewer high school graduates than there were two decades ago, and fewer of them see college as the natural next step. We do not think these trends will reverse in the short term.

Community Engagement: Across all groups of stakeholders, the most common complaint the Work Group heard was that UWM at Washington County was no longer as engaged in the community as it used to be. This point was made so often and with such strong feeling that we regard rebuilding relations with the Washington County community as a major priority.

Role of the Associate Degree: Although the number of US students receiving associate degrees has grown by about 10 percent over the last decade, comparatively few students seek or earn an associate degree at UWM at Washington County.[2] Only 17 percent of all students at UWM at Washington County complete an associate degree; however, about 40 percent transfer to a four-year institution to work toward a bachelor’s degree. So, although the Task Force report indicatesthat there is unnecessary competition between MPTC and UWM at Washington County in the granting of liberal arts associate degrees, in fact the students at UWM at Washington County typically have very different goals.

Despite that fact, the structure of the College of General Studies requires all students to be admitted as associate-degree seeking. Many students find this discouraging, given that the majority have no intention of ever completing an associate degree. This structural emphasis on the associate degree confuses and dismays students seeking bachelor’s degrees, and has made UWM’s branch campuses less competitive than they could be.

Transfer Articulations: In our student survey of 118 current and former students, advising and course transfers to other institutions ranked among the most challenging issues on campus. Given that most students want to transfer to a four-year campus, and given that half of all students who do transfer continue at UWM, this represents a major impediment. A primary goal must be to make the transition from UWM at Washington County to other four-year colleges as seamless as possible, and especially to UWM.

Class Size and Curriculum: The Work Group learned how complicated it is to maintain the current curriculum with a declining student population. Because the campus has more faculty than it needs, class sizes are often small, averaging about 10 students per class. Classes at that size do not generate enough tuition revenue to cover costs, which makes instruction at UWM at Washington County more expensive than at UWM as a whole. These very small classes also provide students with a less-than-desired campus experience.

Moreover, although faculty numbers have declined, they have not declined as rapidly as enrollments, leaving more faculty than necessary overall, and also distributed unevenly across fields. Some fields such as philosophy have a surplus of faculty, and not enough teaching for everyone. Other fields such as biology have too few faculty, which requires the hiring of additional academic staff to maintain the curriculum. We also heard complaints from students in our survey and from K–12 school superintendents that students would like a wider range of classes.

These two problems exacerbate each other. Providing more courses requires more instructors, which increases costs, but also decreases class size even further. Conversely, reducing the number of courses in order to increase class sizes would help the budget, but would disappoint students and leave gaps in the curriculum. At current enrollment levels, we see no cost-neutral solution to both of these problems.

Campus Climate and Student Life: The Task Force report emphasizes the decline in the quality of student experience as enrollments have declined. We agree that this is a major challenge, and we see no remedy at current enrollment levels. Even before the merger of two-year colleges and four-year comprehensives—when branch campus enrollments were double what they are today—no vendors were willing to provide food service on campus. Cost sharing of food service would need to take place. We see no realistic way to restore many of the services the campus once provided because of the loss of revenue from tuition and segregated fees. It is worth noting that our survey revealed that although faculty, staff and students all wanted better food service, none of them rated athletics as a major priority.

Attitudes toward a Merger with MPTC: Because we were charged with evaluating the Task Force recommendations, we asked all stakeholders for their views on the matter. Many replied that it was hard to assess without knowing exactly what was intended, which many members of our group also concluded. When we tested various possible scenarios we encountered much more opposition to the idea of a full-fledged merger of both institutions under the leadership of MPTC than to other forms of collaboration. Even so, we found a range of opinions in our conversations and in our surveys.

In general, we found widespread interest in the possibility of more collaboration with MPTC. Stakeholders imagined sharing resources to run an engineering program or other bachelor’s degrees; sharing resources to support MPTC’s new liberal arts associate degrees; or sharing each other’s facilities for teaching and activities. Some wondered whether UWM at Washington County might move to MPTCs facilities without merging operations. Nobody disputed that in a period of declining enrollment, it made good sense to partner with MPTC more creatively. We encourage campus leadership at UWM to try to do so.

We were surprised not to hear more enthusiasm for a full merger. Some stakeholders from the chambers of commerce were either supportive of, or curious about, the opportunities a merger might present. They expressed concerns about wise use of taxpayer money as enrollments decline on both campuses; they noted the decline in the quality of student life at UWM at Washington County; and they emphasized the pressing need for vocationally trained employees by local businesses. The Washington County Executive was most enthusiastic about a merger, though the group welcomed his openness to other forms of collaboration with MPTC that might serve the county well.

We found much more opposition to the prospect of a full merger as outlined in the Task Force report. Among students we surveyed, 4 percent said they would be more likely to attend a merged institution, while 45 percent said they would be less likely to attend it. One student opposed to merging institutions wrote, “It’s not that I don’t like MPTC, but the potential of having this school under UWM has far more opportunities for future students who need to save money or want to experience community college life. I went here because of the availability and potential to move to other schools once I was done here, so I wish that future students would have the same opportunity that I had by having this school be a part of UWM.” This was characteristic of the sentiment from many surveyed students who intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, and who expressed concern that starting at a technical college might make that more difficult.

Other stakeholders opposed the merger on different grounds. Among local elected officials, Washington County Campus Foundation supporters, and some members of area chambers of commerce, many noted the importance of strong liberal arts education for civic and business leaders and for employers in professional fields. Others saw an independent UWM at Washington County as a point of community pride. Still others saw maintaining a liberal arts campus as a quality-of-life issue for people in their communities. Several stakeholders worried that a merged campus might cease to be a springboard to four-year education elsewhere, which has been the main role of UWM at Washington County. We also noted the deep pride that many people take in the Washington County campus, which, unlike all other two-year colleges in the UW System, was established by and for Washington County community members. Many reported that multiple generations of their family had attended college at the Washington County campus, or that they would not have attended college if they could not have started there. Many regarded a merger as the loss of something that the community itself had created and sustained.

Faculty and staff in CGS were the most skeptical about a full merger. We surveyed 111 faculty and staff in CGS, out of a total of about 150. Of that total, 39 respondents selected Washington County as their home campus. Among all employees in all categories (faculty, academic staff, university staff), 63 percent strongly or somewhat opposed a merger, while 11 percent strongly or somewhat approved of a merger. Among all groups, only the small number of employees classed as “university staff” were evenly divided on the matter.

After the president of MPTC publicly expressed an unwillingness to fully absorb UWM at Washington County, the possibility of a full merger began to seem more remote both to the stakeholders we engaged and to the members of our group. This group also recognizes that there seems to be little incentive for MPTC to merge with UWM at Washington County.

We also have reservations about a full merger, which seems not certain to yield the benefits the Task Force imagines, and which might be more difficult and expensive to accomplish than the Task Force assumes.

First, we worry that the Task Force report mistakes the mission of UWM at Washington County as consisting primarily of granting associate degrees. As noted, fewer than one fifth of all students receive associate degrees, and most intend to start a bachelor’s degree instead. For that reason, we do not perceive the kind of head-to-head competition that the Task Force report identifies. Given that the real mission of UWM at Washington County is starting bachelor’s degrees, we also worry that a technical college might not be the right place for all of our students to begin.

Second, we are convinced that fully merging two such different institutions would entail challenges that the Task Force report does not address, especially if they are housed on one campus. Faculty might like higher salaries at MPTC, as the report speculates, but MPTC would seem to have little motivation to hire many of them. Those faculty that MPTC did hire would only enjoy higher salaries at the cost of job security. There are additional challenges related to space and facilities, and some of these are likely to be expensive.

Third, a fully merged institution might confer the advantages the Task Force report anticipates, but other states with similar models experience challenges as well. Colleagues from other state systems report internal competition for resources between the liberal arts and vocational sides of comprehensive community college. And they note that few institutions have leaders that understand both sides well, so one side often feels neglected or less capably managed. If UWM at Washington County does pursue a full merger, we urge all parties to consider carefully the long-term challenges and potential costs.

Significantly more work is needed if a full merger is the goal. If so, it should probably develop gradually over the next 5–10 years, starting with more commitment to collaboration and smaller-scale resource sharing between independent operations.

3. Recommendations

Because a full merger seems untenable at the moment, and unwise if attempted too hastily, and because the status quo also seems to us unsustainable, we see only one way forward: full integration of UWM at Washington County with the rest of UWM. We recommend moving in a phased way over the next several years to fully incorporate students, faculty, staff and curriculum into UWM. This should entail: a common course catalog, rather than separate and different courses at the current branch campuses; faculty integration into UWM’s existing departments, and thus the elimination of the College of General Studies as an academic unit; the same undergraduate admission for students at all locations through a unified application process; unified marketing strategies across all locations; differential tuition based on location; expansion of the First-Year Bridge program to the Washington County and Waukesha locations; new structures to ensure more community engagement; and a thorough review of facilities to determine the best use of the building currently housing UWM at Washington County.

Common Course Catalog: Because most students at UWM at Washington County seek bachelor’s degrees and plan to transfer to four-year institutions, and because half of those who transfer come to UWM, we urge UWM and UWM at Washington County to adopt a common course catalog as soon as possible. We understand that planning is already underway to lower barriers to transfer, but we urge UWM to go even further. Ideally, the UWM course catalog would largely replace the existing course catalogs for the College of General Studies. As a result, students would no longer have to transfer courses to UWM, because they would already be UWM students. Moving between UWM campuses should be seamless.

Faculty Integration: The College of General Studies should be eliminated, and all faculty should be incorporated fully into UWM’s existing instructional colleges. Rather than functioning as stand-alone institutions, the branch campuses should serve as locations where UWM faculty teach. We hope that this level of integration will encourage more UWM colleges to work closely and creatively with branch campuses and their students.  

Workload issues and pay disparities are likely to be the most difficult issues to address. Many faculty at UWM’s main campus teach two courses each semester because they also advise graduate students, write grant applications, run research labs, and actively publish in their fields. Many CGS faculty contribute in these ways too, but on all three campuses there are disparities in workload. The recent 2030 Action Team on Workload recently began a serious study of workload policy on the main campus, and that conversation must continue for full integration of CGS faculty to succeed.

Bachelor’s Admission: Students admitted to UWM at Washington County should be admitted into the same undergraduate pool as students on the main campus, even if their major is undecided. They should no longer be admitted as associate degree students when they are qualified for admission to a bachelor’s program.

While not the primary focus for UWM at Washington County in the future, the associate degree should be maintained as an option for some students, including those who stop-out of a bachelor’s degree before graduation. We also recommend partnering with MPTC to help support their new liberal arts associate degrees; for example, UWM at Washington County might help provide some courses in areas where they have few or no instructors.

Currently, admissions standards at UWM at Washington County are less stringent than at the main campus, so some students will not be admissible to a UWM bachelor’s program. These students should be redirected to an expanded First-Year Bridge program where they can get more support and begin to transition to full admission to a bachelor’s program.

Increased Community Engagement: To restore the level of community engagement that many stakeholders miss, we recommend recognizing community engagement as essential work on campus and rewarding it accordingly. Interested faculty might contribute to this goal in a more structured way. For example, given that there are too many faculty for the current number of students, some faculty might serve as dedicated community liaisons in exchange for release from teaching one or more courses. One such liaison might be dedicated to K-12 schools, for instance, and might hold weekly office hours at Washington County high schools. Another might represent UWM at Washington County at civic organizations and community events. Currently, senior administrators, including the dean and associate dean, do not have the time to represent the campus as fully as the community would like because they divide their time between all three UWM campuses. Additionally, UWM’s external and government relations team should develop more robust plans to engage local government, community leaders, and civic organizations to strengthen key relationships between them and UWM. UWM’s external and government relations team should guide any location-specific civic and community liaisons to ensure alignment with overall UWM positioning.

Unified Marketing Strategies: UWM should unify its undergraduate communications and marketing efforts at both branch campuses to better reflect a unified experience for undergraduate students. Marketing language should focus on pathways for students to pursue bachelor’s degrees rather than associate degrees. As faculty, admissions, and curriculum are integrated, marketing should reflect that students attend one UWM with multiple locations. UWM should maintain a high level of audience-focused messaging in each market in which it recruits prospective students and families. Broader marketing materials, such as the UWM website, view book, and broadcast advertising should reflect unified undergraduate messaging.

Differential Location-Based Tuition: Surveyed students reported that the single most important factor in choosing UWM at Washington County was cost. As a result, we do not think that a flat tuition rate for UWM at all locations is viable. Careful study will be necessary, but we suggest that although tuition rates at Washington County and Waukesha might be increased, they probably should not exceed tuition rates at other nearby four-year campuses.

Facilities Review: UWM should review its Washington County facilities. Because that campus is not likely to return to its high enrollments of the past, we urge creative thinking about how best to house operations, and an open-minded approach to where instruction can best take place. For example, UWM might occupy only half the building and the County could lease the other half, or it might rent space from MPTC for classes in Washington County. Whatever the case, we understand the county executive’s desire to make fuller use of that building than UWM is currently able to do. This is an opportunity for UWM to consider the best use of its existing campuses and to develop a university-wide plan for moving forward as a multi-campus institution.

[1] The statistics on enrollment declines on p. 8 of the Task Force report provide useful estimates, but appear to involve different counting methods. For example, some of the figures for some colleges appear to include dual enrolled high school students, even though dual enrollment does not provide revenue similar to an enrolled college student. Those colleges including dual enrolled high school students in their figures will thus appear to have suffered smaller enrollment declines than those colleges that exclude dual enrolled students from their calculations, even though their revenue declines might be comparable.

[2] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of associate degrees granted in all fields, both liberal arts and technical fields, increased from 943,500 in 2010-11 to 1,036,400 in 2020-21: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cta