Tommy Thompson Op-ed on Higher Education
Posted on 06/26/2023

Tommy Thompson: Rethink how Wisconsin delivers higher education

Op-ed published in Wisconsin State Journal June 26, 2023

Wisconsin’s world class higher education system features the sprawling University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Technical College systems. Our 13 public universities and 16 technical colleges operate on main and satellite campuses in dozens of cities. In some communities, UW and tech college campuses share a common location or have overlapping missions, raising the question: Are there innovative ways to streamline Wisconsin’s higher education infrastructure while still providing access to local, commuter and online students?

UW System operates 13 main campuses and 13 additional branch locations across Wisconsin. The tech colleges have an even larger footprint, with facilities in many more locations. The state developed this infrastructure over time with a desire to expand educational opportunities to every corner of Wisconsin — but with little coordination between the UW and Technical College systems. We are now at a crossroads where demand in some locations is far less than the capacity we built and maintain.

When I was UW System president, I asked whether our facilities, personnel and educational offerings were making the best use of taxpayer funds. I argued that they were not, and called for a blue-ribbon commission to recommend a better way to deploy and fund statewide higher education, This is particularly important because the number of college-age people in the state is projected to decline.

I renew that call and point to two situations in support of my position.

Washington County officials are seeking a solution in West Bend where the campuses of UW-Milwaukee at Washington County and Moraine Park Technical College are separated by only a couple miles. UW enrollment there has significantly declined, but Moraine Park enrollment has remained robust. Of more concern, the West Bend School District today has 500 seniors but only 350 kindergartners.

County leaders recognize the current infrastructure will become increasing inefficient. They recommend transitioning the UW programs to the comprehensive community college at Moraine Park. They want to provide a range of vocational and university options in a more affordable and sustainable way.

I commend Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann and the Washington County business community who thoughtfully studied options for UW-Milwaukee at Washington County and produced an innovative solution that the state’s Joint Committee on Finance recently recommended to the full Legislature. Once enacted by Gov. Tony Evers, Washington County, UW-Milwaukee, UW System and Moraine Park Technical College will come back to the Legislature with a full plan for how the comprehensive community college will work.

A more dire situation is playing out in Richland Center where the UW System has provided notice it will effectively close the local UW-Platteville campus. Enrollment has declined to 60 students, but local officials there point to a continuing need to provide educational opportunities for residents. A more efficient solution is needed to reduce costs, but also to maintain UW’s commitment to the community.

The West Bend and Richland Center situations are only two examples of communities struggling with questions surrounding access to higher education. We can expect more cities to join the discussion, particularly if the System seeks to close additional two-year branch campuses, as suggested recently.

It’s time to convene a commission to examine how public university and technical college opportunities are offered across the state and make recommendations to provide those opportunities broadly and more efficiently. The study should consider virtual learning and whether our higher education resources align with local industries and the workforce needs of the future.

Wisconsin has the best higher education system in the nation, but it can be better with forward-looking planning. The time is now to study how we get to that better future.

Thompson is the former president of UW System and former governor who served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. James Langdon, a former System vice president of administration, helped with this column.