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UW System moving degree programs off Richland Center campus

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UW Platteville

Students at UW-Platteville walk the university's Richland Center campus in January 2020.

The University of Wisconsin System has ordered UW-Platteville to shift its instructional programs away from its Richland Center campus starting next year, as enrollment hits an all-time low.

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In a letter Tuesday to UW-Platteville Interim Chancellor Tammy Evetovich, System President Jay Rothman outlined a four-step plan for the Richland Center campus, which includes moving all instructional programs to either the Platteville or Baraboo campuses for fall 2023 while developing a plan to “maintain a suitable presence” at the Richland County campus through such things as enrichment programs or courses for adults.

The Richland Center campus enrolled just 60 students this fall, the fewest of all two-year branch campuses. Enrollment has plummeted since 2014, when there were 567 students enrolled.

Enrollment declines at the System’s two-year campuses prompted the Board of Regents to merge all of its two-year campuses with the System’s four-year universities at the start of the 2018 school year. Richland Center and Baraboo were paired with UW-Platteville.

In his letter, Rothman acknowledged UW-Platteville’s “good faith effort” to stabilize enrollment, noting those efforts have not worked.

“While the University of Wisconsin System remains committed to the branch campuses and to providing as broad of access for students as possible, there comes a time when financial pressure and low enrollment makes in-person degree level academic instruction no longer tenable,” the letter stated.

The majority of the two-year branch campuses have been seeing declines in enrollment for at least the last 10 years. Even so, all the campuses but Richland Center still count hundreds of students, with UW-Platteville at Baraboo the second-smallest at 216 students.

Rothman said in an interview Monday that branch campuses have experienced the same phenomenon of declining enrollment that other community and technical colleges around the nation have faced.

The proposal by then-System President Ray Cross to merge the campuses five years ago was intended to shore up the institutions’ unsustainable operations while preserving access to education in those rural counties.

The Richland Center campus offers programs in general education, business administration, agriculture, hospitality and pre-engineering. Interim Campus Dean Brandon Flattery did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, community colleges and technical schools were hit harder in the pandemic than four-year schools. In 2021, fall enrollment dropped 10% and enrollment by students who are Black, Hispanic or Indigenous dropped nearly 30%.

Rothman said in the letter that the status quo is no longer sustainable at Richland Center.

“Each of the branch campuses have a different strategy about what it’s going to look like going forward,” Rothman said Monday of plans to turn enrollment around. “But we’ve got to address that, and we have to have the branch campuses be sustainable in the long run.”

Community loss

It’s easy to see the impact of UW-Richland Center in southwestern Wisconsin, Richland Center Tourism Coordinator Marty Richards said.

“You drive down the road and every house on these rural roads, you point at it, and either a parent or multiple kids attended the campus for a period of time over the last 50 years,” Richards said. “For our community, it was really a source of pride.”

The decision to close the Richland Center campus to in-person instruction both angered and saddened Richards, who attended school there for two semesters. Two of his children also received their associate degrees there. A decade earlier, community members had worked to bolster the school’s enrollment prior to its consolidation with UW-Platteville. Now it feels as if that work has been undone, Richards said.

In a community meeting less than a year ago, UW-Platteville administrators acknowledged mistakes in integrating both Richland Center and Baraboo’s campuses into their infrastructure but appeared optimistic about the future, Richards said.

Feeling the hurt

Richards called the move to end instruction at Richland Center’s campus premature and said he feels that closing the campus was a goal from the start of consolidation.

“There is either really poor management and has been from the start, or there was a plan from the start, and that’s what they walked out to the result we have today,” he said.

Macey Wood, a freshman on the Richland Center campus, said she’s not surprised the campus will end instruction next fall based on how small the enrollment is.

Wood said she chose to enroll there because it allows her to live at home and attend school, saving “a reasonable amount of money” compared to a four-year campus.

“It’s sad because it’s so convenient for students who want to save money and live near or at home,” she said. “Due to this significant decision, I will have to switch campuses, which will likely mean I’ll have to commute further or move away from home.”

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