Despite funding stabilizing for Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities, enrollment continues to plummet | Biz Times

Even though Wisconsin has caught up with the national average of state tax, local tax and tuition funding available for public colleges and universities, student enrollment numbers at campuses across the state continue to plummet.

A new Wisconsin Policy Forum report shows Wisconsin exceeded the national average of funding available by $354 per college student in fiscal year 2021. This comes after Wisconsin trailed the national average by $308 per student in 2020.

WPF points to several reasons for this increase in funding, including Wisconsin’s “relatively strong” budget and tax collections. A more dire reason for the increase, however, is a rapid drop in enrollment in Wisconsin, which means funding is spread across fewer students.

“The partly positive findings on funding for Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities are tempered by a look at their enrollment challenges,” according to the report.

WPF findings show that enrollment declines at Wisconsin’s public institutions outpace those seen nationally, particularly for two-year campuses.

“That raises concerns about the future of the state’s colleges as well as its labor force,” reads the report.

In 1973, UW-Milwaukee at Washington County had an enrollment of 539 students. The school’s highest ever enrollment was in fall 2010 with a headcount of 1,117 students. Since 2010, enrollment has plummeted. Last fall, UW-Milwaukee at Washington County had only 332 students.

UW-Milwaukee at Waukesha County had a total enrollment of 1,591 students in 1973. As of last fall, 790 students were enrolled. The school reached its enrollment peak in 1988 with 2,535 students enrolled.

The UW-Green Bay Sheboygan Campus has also seen a sharp enrollment decline. Last fall, the campus had a headcount of 440 students. That’s down from the all-time high for campus enrollment: 896 students back in 2011. In 1973, the school had 601 students.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee main campus has not been shielded from this trend. UWM’s highest enrollment came in 2010 with a headcount of 30,470 students. Last fall, UWM had 21,744 students.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment declined even more rapidly at public colleges and universities in the state. Overall, UW System figures show its full-time student enrollment fell 5.3% between the fall of 2019 and 2022, dropping from 142,906 to 135,276.

Financial aid could stymie declining enrollment

Numerous issues have exacerbated the state’s trend of declining enrollment.

“In the case of Wisconsin, many observers have noted the state’s falling birth rates over time as well as its lackluster net migration figures,” according to the report. “As we have noted, fewer students are completing high school today than a decade ago and more of those who do complete high school belong to a racial or ethnic group that has long faced barriers to enrolling and succeeding in college.”

An upcoming tuition increase approved last month by the UW System Board of Regents, the first such increase for resident undergraduates in a decade, is also expected to put a damper on future enrollments. Tuition and fees are expected to increase by an average of 4.9%, or $404, for 2023-24.

This incoming tuition increase, paired with already declining enrollments, highlights the importance of student financial aid in the coming years, according to the WPF report. The UW System is already expanding a current UW-Madison financial aid program to all of its campuses. The program provides enough grants and scholarships to cover tuition and fees for students with a household income of $62,000 or less.

Gov. Tony Evers is also planning to provide $65.8 million from 2023 to 2035 for general state support for the Wisconsin Technical College System, plus additional funds for specific training and education programs.

“With Wisconsin facing frequent warnings about labor shortages from a variety of employers, higher education represents a possible solution to at least some of those challenges,” according to the report. “From nurses to trades workers, the state’s workforce needs are likely to remain pressing and the current state budget surplus provides an opportunity to at least partly address them.”

The report also suggests state lawmakers consider new approaches to student transfers and services to both K-12 and higher education students that might help to boost college enrollment and graduation rates.

Source: Despite funding stabilizing for Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities, enrollment continues to plummet

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