The UW question

The two-year campuses in Wausau and Marshfield are supposed to merge with UW-Stevens Point. But will that preserve the options those smaller colleges are meant to provide?


UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson stood in front of a crowd primarily of faculty and staff on Nov. 14 in one of the campus meeting rooms. He was addressing the recently announced merger of his campus with the two-year universities in Wausau and Marshfield. Patterson first delivered some statistics, many of which surprised even him: The rates of first-generation college students at UWSP weren’t much different than those at UW-Marathon County and UW-Marshfield/Wood County; so were the eligibility rates for federal tuition assistance (Pell grants).

Those kinds of demographics, as well as a host of other data, are important considerations. The UW Board of Regents only five days prior had delivered a decision that all 13 UW Colleges would be merging with nearby University of Wisconsin campuses. Under the proposal, Marshfield and Wausau’s campuses will no longer be separate, independent UW colleges, but instead become branches of UWSP. And by the way, the deadline for all this? July 1 of next year.

What will the merger mean for the three schools? That’s a good question, and one that administration, faculty, staff and students will spend the next several months—though it probably will take years—trying to figure out.

As Patterson stood in front of the crowd, assisted by Provost Greg Summers, he delivered as many answers as he could, but “we’re working on that,” or “we’re not sure” were common responses.

At this early stage, there are more questions than answers, Summers explained in a later interview. UWSP has formed a task force, comprised of members from across the three schools, to figure out those answers.

Right now that leaves students (current and prospective), faculty and staff wondering what exactly their local institutions will look like going forward. Complicating matters is that only two years ago, UW Colleges regionalized its 13 campuses, and Wausau and Marshfield’s campuses joined two others to form a four-campus structure with shared administration and resources. Now all that will be pulled apart as they become part of UWSP.

Although there are many questions to answer, at least two things are clear: One, transition team co-chair Kristen Hendrickson told City Pages, is that the transition won’t be finished by July 1. Not by a long shot.

One of the team’s first tasks will be figuring out exactly what they can accomplish by July 1, and what will phase in over the next few years. For example, curriculums will remain the same for the fall semesters, since courses descriptions are being written right now.

And two: Although the transition teams will have input from the other two campuses, it’s Stevens Point’s show.

“There might be things we can learn from the two-year campuses,” Patterson told the audience that Tuesday. “They’re really good at developmental education, for example. We don’t have much experience with that… But for the most part, they’re integrating with us.”

Will all UW options still remain?

One of the main purposes of having two-year UW colleges is to provide options outside of, or prior to, enrolling at a large four-year university. So one might expect a vast difference in demographics.

Statistics that surprised even Patterson: The rate of first-generation college students at UWSP aren’t much different from that at UW Colleges: Roughly 46% of students at UWSP are first-gen college students, versus 49% at UWMC and 41% at UW-Marshfield.

Eligibility for federal tuition assistance also is roughly equal: 36% at UWSP, versus 31% of UW Colleges students (specific data for each campus wasn’t available yet).

One main difference that separates UWSP from two-year schools is admission standards. There are academic requirements to be accepted at UWSP. A profile of students in 2015 shows an average ACT score of 22.5, a high school GPA of 3.2, and a high school class rank in the top 30%.

UW Colleges have open enrollment, and it’s a core principle of those institutions. The colleges are meant for everyone, including those who might not get considered at four-year UW schools, says UWMC English professor Katie Kalish.

She says enrollment standards highlight one of the key differences between the institutions: UWMC has pre-university level classes for individuals who need help reaching college level English and math, or for returning adults who maybe haven’t sat in a classroom in more than a decade. UWSP offers these kinds of math courses but not for English.

Nine percent of accepted students at UWSP require math remediation; at UW Colleges that number is 33%. And students who need English remediation aren’t even accepted at UWSP, but comprise 20% of UW Colleges students.

That presents a problem if, by July 1, the colleges in Wausau, Marshfield and Stevens Point are all supposed to be one institution. How can all three schools be one university but have three different admission standards?

UWSP is committed to maintaining access to the two-year campuses, Patterson says, but how exactly that will happen remains to be seen.

There’s also the issue of cost. The price of a year’s tuition at UWSP is double that at either UWMC or UW-Marshfield/Wood County.

That’s another problem that UW leaders can’t answer yet, Patterson says. Upholding the principle of accessibility would seem to require lower tuition options. But if everyone is considered a UWSP student, and tuition is cheaper at the Wausau campus, what prevents Stevens Point-based students from driving up to Wausau for classes to save money? And if Point students can do that, would Wausau-based students pay more for courses at Stevens Point if Wausau classes fill up? Those are a few of many questions the transition team will have to address.

These aren’t just logistics questions. These are details that can cost students (and their families) thousands of dollars, and affect whether it takes four or five years to earn a degree.

The whole thing has faculty at UW Colleges, and even at UWSP, concerned about how these continual changes affect students, says UW-Marshfield theater professor Kelly Wilz. Students endured cuts and consolidation two years ago when UW Colleges consolidated to a regional model, and now the whole system will change again.

“I think I speak for most faculty when I say we are simply tired of feeling like we are the only ones fighting for our students, and it often seems as though we care so much more about their well being and success than our institutional leaders, state legislators, and our Board of Regents,” Wilz told City Pages in an email.

One thing that seems clear, according to UWSP Provost Greg Summers: Instructors at all three schools will be UWSP teachers, and fall under their respective departments. That means a student majoring in English, for example, will be considered an English student at UWSP, under one department chair for all three campuses.

For Wausau or Marshfield-based students, that could either be a benefit or a hindrance, depending on how it’s handled.

Consider a single mom working a job while trying to fit in school (not an uncommon scenario at UWMC), this could play out two different ways. If the merger allows her to take all required general education classes at UWMC, and then a mix of specialized classes between the Wausau and Point campuses in her final two years, that would be easier than a full transfer to Stevens Point. If, however, she has to take some classes in Point from day one, that creates a much larger barrier to education.

A tool that could ease the transition for everyone, Kalish says, is distance learning and online classwork. Two-year UW Colleges already have a good handle on that because of the previous consolidation to a regional campus model, Kalish says, and could work in favor of cutting costs and increasing accessibility for students in Marshfield and Wausau. “One thing the UW colleges are good at is technology,” Kalish says. “Our budgets have been so constrained that we’ve had to find creative ways to offer classes.”

The cost of change


UW Regents were told that one of the benefits of the mergers would be to save money.

However, there are a number of “hidden” costs, says UWSP Center for the Small City and emeritus political science professor Ed Miller. For example, while UW teachers affected by the merger said the effect on students was their primary concern, the issue of pay will come up. UWSP is one of the lowest-paying of the four-year state schools, but still is generally higher than at UW Colleges. Salaries would need to be adjusted to the same pay scale, Miller says. “On the other hand, they could fire a lot of [teachers at both schools].”

But with hundreds of faculty at UWSP, and only 28 full-time equivalents at UWMC and 12 at Marshfield, absorbing staff isn’t likely the main concern. Consolidating other areas will be.

UWMC’s buildings are owned by Marathon County, and Marshfield’s campus is owned by a combination of Wood County and the city of Marshfield. At UWMC, securing money for building projects has been difficult, since the county’s own budget has been strained.

UWSP has had its own building struggles, largely because it competes with other UW institutions for each year. The UW System typically might choose two of 40 submitted building projects state wide, Summer says. That’s not exactly favorable odds.

Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger says he doesn’t see a scenario where the county would turn its back on UWMC, regardless of what name is on the door. But given the lack of county funds for the school, it’s unclear where money other than for routine maintenance will come from.

The merger itself will incur costs, Miller says. All software likely will have to be updated so all three schools share the same system. And extending services at UWSP not currently available at the colleges could also be costly—things like health care and access to UWSP’s many extracurricular programs.

All that will be a challenge as UWSP has faced its own budget trials— the school is managing a $2.5 million budget cut for 2019, Patterson says.

Transition team co-chair Kristen Hendrickson agrees there will be costs associated with the merger and is hopeful for some investment on UW System’s part. “We will continue to push them to make sure we get what we need to make sure this transition is successful,” Hendrickson says.

Numbers don’t tell the full story

Regardless of how anyone feels about the merger, it has been decided and UWSP, UWMC and UW-Marshfield leaders need to work together to make the best of the situation.

The key will be a lot of communication, collecting a lot of data and not making assumptions, says Nerissa Nelson, a faculty librarian at UWSP. Each school has a unique population with different needs, and taking those needs into account will be key to making the transition a success, Nelson says.

Kalish agrees. She taught at both the Marshfield and Wausau campuses, and noticed many of those students had different challenges compared to those at the four-year Marquette University in Milwaukee where she finished her graduate degree and worked as a teaching assistant. She doesn’t remember Marquette students struggling with issues of poverty, or having their belongings wiped out in a fire, or wondering if their financial circumstances would allow them to continue their studies. She saw all those things happen to students in Wausau and Marshfield.

Non-traditional students, Kalish points out, make up a very large portion of students at UWMC, who have different life challenges than traditionally aged students.

Student count doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. The number of part-time students have increased, Kalish says, but aren’t reflected in data based on full time equivalents.

In the 09-10 school year, for example, UW-Marshfield had 499 FTE students, but 674 actual students, suggesting many were taking a full-time course load.

For the 2016-17 school year, there were 319 FTE students, and 535 actual students—a much higher percentage of part-time, and likely non-traditional, students.

Basically, that throws into question the whole rationale for the merger, which was based on a steep decline in enrollment at two-year and smaller four-year campuses.

The data used by UW System President Ray Cross to propose the mergers chose its baseline as 2010. This was a peak year for enrollment at all schools when the Great Recession, company layoffs and military veterans returning from the Middle East drove an educational demand for second careers.

Those driver forces leveling off, plus decreasing demographics help explain the decline, Kalish says.

Adding to that, Miller says, the UW’s policy of enrollment caps (called targets in UW parlance) disappeared two years ago, allowing highly-desired schools such as UW-Madison or La Crosse to draw more students from the whole, leaving fewer students to attend schools such as UWSP.

And this is not the first time a merger has been tried, Miller says. There were plans to merge UW-Waukesha and UW-Milwaukee as late as 2015, but those never got off the ground. UW-Colleges Chancellor Sandy Sundeen said then that the idea was a non-starter, and didn’t think it would save any money. UW-Waukesha’s dean at the time didn’t think so either. Now Waukesha will be one of 13 colleges to merge with a four-year UW school.

One things that is clear: As the central Wisconsin UW transition team hammers out the details of merging three very different schools, they must consider accessibility in terms of cost and academics, and its effects on all the communities.

“The biggest charge is to maintain the access mission of the colleges and bring things to those communities they have never had before, like four year degree programs,” Summers says. “We need to figure out the needs of each community, and how we can meet them.”

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, B.C. Kowalski is a proud graduate of both UW-Marathon and UW-Stevens Point.