Steven Walters
The State of Politics

How Higher Ed Institutions Are Shrinking

It's a stunning trend: Four-year and two-year campuses are cutting back, merging, closing.

By - Apr 1st, 2024 01:48 pm
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee at Waukesha. Photo by Awkwafaba, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee at Waukesha. Photo by Awkwafaba, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

For decades, nobody in Wisconsin’s Capitol dared to say it out loud: Wisconsin had an unsustainable number of institutions of higher learning.

The 2015-16 Blue Book, for example, listed 66 of them: 13 University of Wisconsin System four-year campuses, 13 two-year UW colleges, 16 technical colleges, 18 private colleges and universities, and six technical and professional institutions.

That list didn’t include three theological seminaries and two tribal colleges.

Nobody knows what the number will be in 2025, because one of the most important trends of the last few years is the downsizing of Wisconsin’s public and private universities and colleges.

Consider recent news stories:

-“According to the Northland College Board of Trustees, Northland College in Ashland needs to raise $12 million by [Wednesday] to save the nation’s first environmentally-focused liberal arts institution,” Northern News Now reported.

-“St. Norbert College announced 12 faculty layoffs as the institution shores up a $5 million deficit projected for fiscal year 2025,” the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported on March 8. A spokesman for the DePere college said those layoffs were in addition to 35 jobs eliminated last fall.

-UW-Milwaukee said its Waukesha campus will close after the spring 2025 semester, WISN-TV reported on March 11. The station said about 670 students now attend that campus – 70% fewer students than in 2015, when it was a two-year college.

Marquette University, the state’s largest private university, must cut its spending by $31 million by 2031, the Marquette Wire reported on March 26. The story quoted the university’s provost as saying Marquette has a current budget shortfall of between $9 million and $9.5 million.

Those recent developments follow the closing last May of Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, which had lost one-third of its students between 2009 and 2014; the closing of what had been a two-year UW campus in Richland Center; and the June end of in-person instruction at UW-Milwaukee’s Washington County campus and UW-Oshkosh’s Fond du Lac campus.

When he announced the changes on the Richland Center, Washington County and Fond du Lac campuses in October, Universities of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman said:

“It’s time for us to realign our branch campuses to current market realities and prepare for the future. The status quo is not sustainable. This decision is a response to an evolving student marketplace.”

Rothman in October directed chancellors who oversee two-year campuses to consider cost-cutting options. The UW system, which spends more than $6.8 billion a year, faces a mid-year deficit of $58 million.

That directive led to this statement from UW-Milwaukee officials when they announced the closing of the Waukesha campus: “Declining enrollment, shifting demographics, and budgetary constraints led UWM to re-evaluate the best pathway for delivering higher education in Waukesha County.”

The downsizing of the UW System began in 2017, when then-System President Ray Cross proposed making each two-year campus part of the closest four-year institution. Cross said two-year campus enrollments fell by one-third between 2010 and 2017.

Cross retired in 2019.

The downsizings are forcing institutions to innovate to stay viable.

For example, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) in Green Bay announced that the private Lakeland University will move its Green Bay Center to NWTC’s campus.

Officials of Lakeland, founded in 1862 in Sheboygan County, said the move “allows the university to continue serving” students in that region of the state.

Every campus closing, and every layoff, hurts local communities by damaging their economies and their public image as thriving and viable.

The downsizings can also trigger a political backlash. You can bet that two veteran Republican legislators who are members of the Legislature’s Finance Committee – Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Tony Kurtz – will be asked during their re-election campaigns whether they did all they could to prevent closing of southwest Wisconsin’s Richland Center campus.

One example of how unmentionable Wisconsin’s surplus of post-secondary school institutions had been: Many years ago, a Capitol reporter writing about a particular state program noted that its funding was equal to the entire budget of one of the three UW four-year campuses – Eau Claire, Stout and River Falls – located within 67 miles of each other along the I-94 corridor in western Wisconsin.

The then-chancellor of UW-Stout was so upset the news story mentioned his school budget that he declared the offending Capitol reporter unwelcome on that campus.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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One thought on “The State of Politics: How Higher Ed Institutions Are Shrinking”

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you for this story. Another could be written pointing to Scott Walker and the Republicans who over the years have dissed and denigrated the value of teachers, education and the role of colleges and universities in Wisconsin. Cut the funding, mock the scholars. Better to keep young people ignorant and unaware of history, civics, and democracy. Promoting “fake” over “fact” too often carries the day. Young people need to be educated and young people need to vote.

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