Consolidating two-year colleges to conserve in Wisconsin

For some states, democratizing higher education begins with simplifying its offerings.

Under a new proposal by President Ray Cross, the University of Wisconsin would merge the state’s 13 two-year colleges into its system. The consolidation may help keep Wisconsin’s two-year colleges afloat, as higher ed student populations and high school graduate numbers continue to decline.

Bringing these schools into the UW system as satellite campuses will give the university deeper reach into remote areas of the state, and will allow for easier transfers, according to a University of Wisconsin news brief.

Opportunity knocks

While the proposal has some worried it is less about students and more about the bottom line, experts say it’s a positive move for the state’s higher ed system. Wisconsin’s community colleges will be able to tap into the state system’s resources and services.

“This consolidation offers the opportunity for students to access what they need, and when and where they need it,” says Conor Smyth, director of strategic advancement with Wisconsin Technical College System.

These opportunities include internships and job opportunities offered by the university’s industry partnerships. In return, UW would gain more insight into how two-year schools serve nontraditional students.

“We too often create a false dichotomy by considering higher education as liberal education or job training when the answer is not either/or, but both/and,” says Robert E. Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

“I think this joined system could serve as an example of how we can serve societal, economic and individual needs.”

For example, two-year colleges are structured to respond to the programmatic needs of changing industries and workforce, says Anderson. In return, UW professors can bring their expertise to the two-year satellites when geography allows.

Two-year students would graduate with a degree from the University of Wisconsin system, which would eventually offer upper-level courses on satellite campuses. Savings from this restructuring would be applied to academic programs, as Georgia did with its higher ed consolidation, Anderson adds.

A consolidation would also give Wisconsin a holistic view of its higher ed structure, says Martha M. Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

“With two-year, four-year and workforce development programs under one umbrella, the state can examine effectiveness from a more global perspective.”


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