Continuing a three-year trend, a steep 4% decline in enrollment last fall led UW-Whitewater administrators to announce their goal to make $12 million in base budget cuts over the next two years.
With layoffs expected, the campus is anxiously starting the spring semester figuring out where the cuts and savings will come from.
UW-W recorded the fourth-biggest enrollment drop in fall, according to preliminary 2019 enrollment figures released by the UW System in October. Eight universities saw declines; two had increases of 0.1%, and three others saw increases.
Overall, the UW System had a 2.6% decline in enrollment, according to the preliminary figures. One demographic trend the system cited in a news release was fewer graduating high school students.
Matt Aschenbrener, UW-W’s associate vice chancellor for enrollment and retention, said the state has seen slightly fewer high school graduates overall. But after digging deeper, he said some of the university’s recruiting areas have seen decreases, while others have seen increases.
So perhaps high school graduation trends are not hurting UW-W as much as other state universities, but broad state trends still have their way of affecting Whitewater.
Aschenbrener said when other system schools struggle with enrollment, they expand their recruitment pools—which UW-W has done. But that means those pools become more competitive.
He said UW-W focuses on a 17-county region—Walworth, Rock, Jefferson, Columbia, Dodge, Washington, Ozaukee, Dane, Waukesha, Milwaukee, Green, Racine and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin and Winnebago, Boone, McHenry and Lake counties in Illinois.
About 80% of UW-W students come from an 80-mile radius around the university, Aschenbrener said in a recent email.
Looking forward, the counties surrounding Milwaukee—including Walworth County—are projected to lose more graduates than anywhere in the state by 2025-26, according to UW-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory in a December 2017 report projecting high school graduate figures.
Milwaukee and Dane counties, however, are projected to see large increases.
The Colorado-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education tracks high school graduation figures and also makes projections for all 50 states. Aschenbrener shared the organization’s website, which projects that Wisconsin will see some increases in graduation numbers until 2025. After that, those numbers will drop to levels below any year since 2001.
Another broader factor at play in declining enrollment is a strong economy, Aschenbrener said. The thinking goes: A degree is not necessary to find a relatively high-paying job when unemployment is low, but if the economy goes south, people see degrees as necessary for them to be competitive.
Over the next five to 10 years, Aschenbrener said he sees university enrollment remaining flat or increasing slightly.
He emphasized that the university looks at a variety of factors to make enrollment projections. In a similar vein, getting out of an enrollment hole calls for a variety of solutions.
UW-W and other system schools will get some help on one of those solutions—tuition. The Board of Regents on Friday approved tuition increases for out-of-state and graduate students at six universities, according to The Associated Press.
UW-Whitewater, along with UW-Milwaukee and UW-Platteville, will increase nonresident undergraduate tuition between 1% and 3%, AP reported.
A tuition freeze has been in effect for in-state undergraduate students since 2013, but officials throughout the UW System for years have talked about how it has affected them financially.
“Really, that has significantly hurt us,” Aschenbrener said of the freeze. “Multiple years of that has hurt in a number of ways.”
At a Feb. 4 bill signing in Milton, a Gazette reporter asked Gov. Tony Evers how the state can help institutions such as UW-W. The governor said the declining high school population “will be an issue.”
“So first of all, campuses have to understand they will have to do some shrinkage there as it relates to the number of staff,” Evers said. “But also, we have to make sure that the state has adequate resources for that.
“As a member of the Board of Regents for 11 years, I saw budget after budget, kind of demoralizing and cutting to the University of Wisconsin System,” he said. “We have to at least keep it to a place where tuition is kept reasonable and we’re able to offer the courses that we need.
“So it’s critical.”