Businesses can’t survive if they don’t have enough customers. The same goes for colleges and universities.
Cardinal Stritch University, a private college located in Fox Point and Glendale, will cease operations at the end of this school year, a stunning ending for an institution founded in 1937.
“The fiscal realities, downward enrollment trends, the pandemic, the need for more resources and the mounting operational and facility challenges presented a no-win situation,” said Cardinal Stritch president Dan Scholz, Ph.D.
Because the current generation of college-aged students is significantly smaller than the millennial generation, many colleges and universities are faced with declining enrollment.
One top local higher education official I spoke to predicted that Cardinal Stritch could be the first of several colleges and universities in the area to shut down. The Milwaukee area has a large number of colleges and universities for a region of its size, he said, and many schools are faced with declining enrollment, rising deferred maintenance costs for their campuses and students unwilling to pay higher tuition.
However, a review of recent tax filings by private colleges and universities in the region shows that Cardinal Stritch had faced financial losses for years, while other private higher education institutions in the area appear to be in better financial shape with no obvious major red flags.
A recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report shows that student enrollment at public colleges and universities across the state is plummeting. 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.
The University of Wisconsin System’s two-year schools are facing huge enrollment challenges, causing some to wonder about their future. The UW System will end in-person classes at the UW-Platteville Richland Center campus on July 1, following years of steep enrollment declines.
Enrollment at UW-Milwaukee at Waukesha has fallen from a peak of 2,535 students in 1988 to 790. At UW-Milwaukee at Washington County, enrollment has fallen from 1,117 in 2010 to 332.
The UW System’s two-year schools won’t be sustainable if its enrollment declines continue. The Washington County Board recently recommended merging UWM at Washington County with Moraine Park Technical College. That’s an interesting idea and should be given serious consideration.
The UW System’s four-year schools are also enduring major enrollment declines. From 2019-‘22 UW-Madison’s enrollment grew 10.2% and UW-Green Bay’s grew 2.1%, but every other four-year UW school’s enrollment fell, including UW-Milwaukee, which saw a 10.2% dip in enrollment.
Declining enrollment threatens the very existence of Wisconsin colleges and is another sign of how lack of population growth is hurting the state. For the sake of the state’s future workforce and its economy, policy makers should be doing everything they can to reverse these trends.