Recent population projections show an increase of high school graduates in the state — not a decline — undermining the UW System’s justification for substantial restructuring.
If you’ve been following the latest Wisconsin political saga, you’d know that the University of Wisconsin System is again under attack — but mostly from within. Recent declines of enrollment at UW College’s two-year campuses — a combination of the post-recession recovery and recent decreases in high school gradates — has provided UW System with a crisis. And, of course, a good leader never lets a crisis go to waste.
In response, President Cross launched his plan to dramatically restructure the UW System in October, 2017 (link to press release). While their have been multiple concerns raised about this plan, I want to address “demographic trends” in Wisconsin, a key justification for the restructuring and one picked up by related media coverage. Cathy Sandeen, Chancellor for UW Colleges, was quoted as saying:
“The dramatic demographic declines in this state are undeniable and we have been working hard to ensure the future viability and sustainability of our small campuses.”
The press release additionally provides this table:
That Wisconsin’s population is getting older is no surprise to demographers and, of course, is a trend in most industrialized counties. But what was implied in these numbers and the way Cross spoke about them was that there were fewer high school graduate available to UW System schools — enrollments would inevitably decline.
The media, of course, took the bait and furthered the misconception. Here’s the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Enrollment falls at several UW System campuses this fall as state’s demographics shift, and in the Wisconsin State Journal, Cross is quoted as “Our goal here is to leverage our resources to avoid closures, focus them in areas and respond effectively to these demographics.”
Of course, the logic doesn’t follow. Just because there’s a decline in the proportion of college-aged population doesn’t mean there’s a decline in the absolute number. And, of course, it’s that number that’s relevant to colleges and college enrollment.
Conveniently, UW-Madison’s Applied Population Lab recently completed (in Dec. 2017) an analysis for UW System (website). No surprise, this report hasn’t received much attention. Here’s the key figure:
The number of high school graduate is projected to reverse recent declines and increase by 3.4% by 2025. The key justification for the restructuring is a short-term problem, not one that warrants the radical response.
While this report did come out after the restructuring plan was released, it’s clear that UW System was interested enough in the numbers to commission the report. Perhaps we haven’t heard about it since it undermined Cross’s key justification for the restructuring.