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Our Views: A merger for U-Rock's 50th birthday

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

UW-Rock County turned 50 years old this year, though news of a proposed merger with UW-Whitewater dampened the celebration Wednesday.

College officials haven't spoken publicly about the plan because they're still trying to assess the merger's effects. Many unanswered questions remain, though plunging enrollment levels at the state's two-year campuses left the UW System with little choice but to pursue reforms.

It's telling that UW-Rock County is the system's top performer among the two-year campuses with an enrollment decline of “only” 28 percent since 2010. Other two-year schools have experienced declines as high as 52 percent, with the worst performers being in northern Wisconsin.

The restructuring proposal allows all 13 of the state's two-year campuses to stay open through savings generated from merging these campuses with four-year colleges. The plan also calls for folding the UW Extension into UW-Madison, giving Extension staff access to the flagship school's vast resources.

Layoffs are likely in the offing, and hopefully the cuts will resemble the kind undertaken by Blackhawk Technical College last year. In that situation, 12 administrative positions were eliminated, while Blackhawk mostly preserved its classroom offerings and even expanded some programs.

If the proposed merger makes UW-Rock County more efficient, as UW System officials say will happen, the restructuring is mostly good news for the region. The benefits include simplifying the process of transferring credits to a four-year college. A major reason people attend two-year colleges is to accumulate credits at a reduced tuition rate with the intention of transferring those credits to another school and ultimately acquiring a bachelor's degree. To the extent UW-Whitewater can better assist students in making that transition, the merger seems to come with minimal downsides.

But in acknowledging the benefits, let's remember even the best executed mergers involve trade-offs, and a botched merger can do more harm than good. For instance, customer service can suffer when merged entities become too aggressive in cutting costs. When one company absorbs another, it can change the other company's culture to the point that long-time customers reject the newly merged company's services or products.

In unveiling the restructuring plan Wednesday, UW System officials addressed potential pitfalls and outlined steps to maintain and even enhance the two-year college experience.

While UW-Whitewater would continue offering two-year programs in Janesville and at current tuition levels, the question becomes: for how long? With a four-year college overseeing a two-year campus, will the former UW-Rock County campus maintain the markings of a two-year school? At what point does the two-year campus more closely resemble a satellite site for UW-Whitewater, similar to how Blackhawk Technical College operates classrooms in Beloit and other cities?

If the services and programs at the Janesville and Whitewater campuses were to become identical, would not the justification for offering the reduced tuition rates at the two-year campus disappear?

We don't claim to have the answers and suspect UW System officials aren't sure what the future holds, either, though we encourage officials to keep these questions in mind as they implement reforms, which we agree are needed.

Wednesday's news maybe wasn't the sort of birthday present UW-Rock County officials had hoped to get, but if these reforms keep the campus open, they are worth it.



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