MADISON, Wis. — Enrollment decline is affecting four-year colleges across the country.  

Fortunately for the University of Wisconsin System, there is good news for the first time since 2014. To begin fall semester, estimated enrollment is up by 540 students systemwide. 

What You Need To Know

  • Enrollment decline is affecting four-year colleges across the country

  • The UW System saw an enrollment increase this year for the first time since 2014

  • To begin the fall semester, estimated enrollment is up 540 students systemwide

  • A declining birth rate, less funding from the state and a low participation rate are driving enrollment challenges

Wisconsin’s largest public university system has nearly 600 more freshman this semester, excluding UW-Madison.  

The system’s flagship university purposely curbed freshman enrollment this year after a more robust class than expected in 2022.

“We have 161,000 students in the system,” UW System President Jay Rothman said. “We have to recruit them into our institutions and retain them here.”

Rothman said there are several factors driving the ongoing issue of declining enrollment for traditional four-year public and private colleges.  

He cited a declining birth rate, less funding from the state and a low participation rate. The latter is most concerning to him because he said it means fewer high school graduates are pursuing a higher education.

“We can look back five to eight years when we were educating one out of three high school graduates and we’re now one out of four,” he said. “If that trend continues, we’ll be at one out of five in the next five years.”

A report from UW-Madison’s SSTAR Lab shows the rate of public high school seniors going into college was 60% in 2009, a rate Rothman said was already the lowest in the Midwest.  

During the pandemic, that percentage fell to 47% and has struggled to bounce back.

“We need to be focused on that as a state if we’re going to be long-term successful,” Rothman said. “The job market being as strong as it is, some people coming out of high school see they can be employed and I think there’s also a concern nationally around affordability of higher education.”

Rothman added that a study last year showed the UW System is the most affordable public university system in the Midwest. He said despite that, affordability still needs to be a focus.

“How do we provide the financial support our students need?” he said. “If we’re not affordable to certain students, that doesn’t work.”

Last fall, the UW System proposed a tuition promise for in-state students coming from families making $60,000 or less per year. The state legislature did not approve it as part of Gov. Tony Evers’ budget.  

The system is also in a fight for funding. Lawmakers in Madison cut $32 million from its base operating budget through 2025, half of which the system has an opportunity to go back and ask for, Rothman said.

“When you think about inflation over the last couple of years, north of 14% on a compounded basis is fair to say, so our spending power has been impacted,” Rothman said.

Rothman said only UW-Madison and UW-La Crosse began fall semester this year without a budget deficit.  

Staffing cuts and a slowdown in new program initiatives have already been announced on some campuses, including Parkside, Oshkosh, Platteville and Green Bay. 

In a statement, UW-Green Bay Spokesperson Kristin Bouchard said:

“I can confirm that nine people were affected and it is possible that over the next three months they may have the opportunity to move into open positions if they become available.”

System leadership came up with a strategic plan to not only adjust for the drop in public funding, but to also address the enrollment cliff.  

“We have streamlined our application process, so you can go online and apply to all of our universities at one time,” Rothman said. “We’re piloting next fall a direct admission program, where we will send out letters saying you’re accepted at these universities based on high school grades.”

That strategic plan also has a goal of graduating 41,000 students every year by 2028. That would be a 10% increase from the current graduation rate.

“If we don’t reach a broader group of students in our state, we’re not going to fill the jobs our employers are creating and those jobs will go elsewhere,” Rothman said.   

Rothman also stressed UW-System’s focus on dual enrollment, which provides high school students an opportunity to earn college credits and learn on a college campus.  

He also said the system is looking at how to recruit adult learners. He said there are 700,000 adults in Wisconsin with some college credits that have yet to finish their degree.