Students walk into the main entrance at UW-Rock County on Wednesday. A new proposal from the UW System would merge two-year campuses with four-year schools. UW-Rock County would merge with UW-Whitewater.

Angela Major


UW-Rock County would lose its identity, but its doors—and those of other two-year colleges—would remain open.

A plan to have the state’s four-year colleges absorb two-year campuses would “ensure the future viability and sustainability of our small campuses,” said Cathy Sandeen, chancellor for the UW Colleges and Extension.

In addition, the plan would help “open doors wider” to a college education by keeping tuition costs down, Sandeen said.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the news Tuesday night about the UW System’s plan to restructure two-year campuses and change the way UW Extension works. The UW System issued a news release about the proposed changes Wednesday morning.

Local officials still were recovering Wednesday, and many were unable to say how the plan would specifically impact them.

Calls to UW-Rock County were referred to the chancellor’s office.

UW-Whitewater’s Director of Marketing and Communications Sara Kuhl said there were still “a lot of uncertainties” about the process.

“The plan still has to be approved by the UW Regents at their November meeting, and we’ll have more clarity after that meeting,” Kuhl said.

Here is what is certain:

UW-Rock County and the state’s other two-year campuses would be absorbed by four-year campuses in their regions. For UW-Rock County, the four-year campus would be UW-Whitewater.

UW-Rock County’s students, faculty and staff would become part of UW-Whitewater. Students still would be able to get two-year associate degrees, but their diplomas would come from UW-Whitewater. Students still would be able to get a four-year degree from UW-Whitewater or other four-year campuses. In fact, that process should get easier, according to a news release from the UW System.

The change is needed, UW System President Ray Cross said in the news release.

“We must restructure these two organizations given the state’s demographic challenges, budgetary constraints and the need for closer alignment between research and practices,” Cross said, according to the release.

Overall enrollment at the state’s 13 two-year campuses has been dropping. Between 2010 and 2017, enrollment dropped 32 percent. That percentage decline would be much worse if the UW Colleges Online program had not been included in the count. “Attendance” at the online colleges grew from 466 in 2010 to 839 in 2017.

At UW-Rock County, enrollment has declined, going from 919 full-time students in 2010 to 661 students in 2017, a 28 percent decrease.

The state’s demographic trends are part of the problem.

By 2040, nearly 95 percent of the total population growth in Wisconsin will be among those age 65 and older. Those of working age, 18 to 64, will increase a mere 0.4 percent, Cross said, according to the news release.

“Our labor force growth will be flat, while the demand for an educated labor force is growing exponentially,” he said, according to the release.

The only way to meet those challenges is to increase access to college education, and a big part of that is keeping tuition costs down, according to the news release.

Cathy Sandeen, chancellor for UW Colleges and Extension, said changes are needed to keep the two-year campuses a part of their communities.

“I am optimistic about the potential of this new structure to keep student access and student success at the forefront,” Sandeen said, according to a news release.

Joining two-year campuses with their four-year peers would give students access to more general education and upper-level courses. Transferring credits would no longer be an issue, and the change would allow the campuses to “further standardize and regionalize administrative operations and services to more efficiently use resources.”

The primary change for UW Extension would be a shift in administration. Local UW Extension offices would become part of UW-Madison. One benefit of the change is to connect agents in the field more closely with the research work going on at UW-Madison, according to the news release.

Similar shifts have taken place in other states, including Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Angie Flickinger, family living educator and department head of Rock County’s Extension office, said she was informed of the changes to her organization Wednesday morning.

She expects the local offices would stay open.

Extension educators received an email Wednesday morning from Karl Martin, dean and director of cooperative extension.

In that email, Martin told educators “The great majority of our work will not change,” Flickinger said.

Rock County’s UW Extension office has an agriculture agent and a family living educator. Two positions, the 4-H youth coordinator and youth development educator, are open. Flickinger said she included the two open positions in her budget and hopes they will be filled.

The state’s cooperative extension system is undergoing a reorganization that started about two years ago. That reorganization effort is separate from the new proposal.

Another question yet to be answered: How will the UW-Rock County relationship with Rock County change?

The county owns the buildings and grounds and has a long-term lease with the Board of Regents for the grounds, said Josh Smith, county administrator.

The county pays for construction and maintenance. Most recently, the county paid for the reconstruction of the school’s parking lots and for a mass notification system to help keep students and staff safe during emergencies.

Smith didn’t think the relationship between the county and the college would change, but he wasn’t sure.

“There’s so much speculation about what’s out there,” Smith said.

The restructuring plan still has to be approved by the UW Board of Regents. It meets next in November.

If approved, the changes would go into effect in July 2018.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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