With fewer students and huge deficits likely, the state should consider closing some campuses and following online model for certain courses

By Ike Brannon for the Badger Institute

The freshman class in the University of Wisconsin System will almost assuredly be smaller come autumn, and it’s likely there will be fewer rising sophomores, juniors and seniors as well.

A sizable proportion may be inclined to take a year off from their education rather than deal with the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring to campus life.

Exacerbating the crisis is the fact that the birth cohorts reaching college age around 2025 will be significantly smaller. In other words, having fewer students on campus in the fall is likely to be a portent of things to come.

This unfortunate reality — both in Wisconsin and across the country — spells disaster for colleges as they have no easy ways to reduce their costs. Maintenance and upkeep on their physical campuses don’t change just because 10% fewer students are on campus, and reducing the number of faculty is problematic as well.

Tenure makes it nearly impossible to fire senior professors, and it can be difficult to let junior faculty go as well, a reality I am intimately familiar with: 25 years ago, my position as a new assistant professor at UW-Oshkosh was on the chopping block, only to be saved by inertia.

No matter what teaching arrangement our public universities decide upon for the fall semester — one idea making the rounds in academia is to bring only freshmen and seniors to campus — our schools are facing huge deficits in the upcoming year.

The UW System’s options for reducing that hole are limited.

Given this reality, it may make sense for the state to consider reducing its physical footprint by closing one or more campuses. Such a step is fraught with political considerations, but it would be better and more cost-effective to have fewer campuses operating at full capacity than our current system 90% full.

It also may behoove the schools to consider offering more limited-term contracts in lieu of tenure. It’s not clear this would necessarily save the schools money —lifetime job security is a highly valued perk to some people — but providing new faculty the lure of higher pay in lieu of a potential lifetime sinecure may be attractive to the current cohort of new Ph.D.s who may value lifetime employment guarantees less than previous generations did. That is partly because they recognize that tenure is a dubious guarantee in the near future as the number of college students shrinks.

study I did in 2016 for the Badger Institute found that a significant proportion of the staff that does the actual teaching in our colleges does not have tenure protection, in part because our tenured professors tend to have low teaching loads. At UW-Madison, it’s common for faculty to teach no more than a class or two per semester.

The state university system might also think about how it can boost enrollment in the future by doing more to attract older, non-traditional students — such as today’s 18-year-olds who forgo college this fall. Roughly one-third of all incoming freshmen in the regional UW System schools drop out by the end of their first year. Some do so because they find a college curriculum too challenging, while others withdraw because they lack the maturity to handle their newfound independence and cannot navigate the tricky social and academic terrain.

A good proportion of these students return to college when they become more mature and appreciative of what a college education can provide. In my experience, these students tend to be highly motivated and excel in the classroom, but it can be difficult for them to find their way back to school. When I was teaching at UW-Oshkosh, the school tried hard to reach out to this group and do more to accommodate them, but it was tough going. Redoubling such efforts may be propitious. The rapid improvements in online instruction forced upon the universities by the pandemic might help to advance these efforts.

In fact, schools across the country have used the half-semester online to rethink how they will teach certain classes in the near future. For instance, for some classes, it may make more sense for the primary instruction to be done online. In many introductory accounting classes, one professor provides the instruction online or in a big lecture hall and the students meet with graduate instructors for assistance with homework or to ask questions. Perhaps our schools will need to embrace this model more and make professors more productive and give undergraduates access to top professors.

The UW System has a deservedly good reputation across the country, and it — especially UW-Madison — is a boon to the Wisconsin economy. It will survive COVID-19, and in the near future students will return en masse to its campuses — online classes are not a substitute for the instruction and maturity that students gain from being educated on a college campus.

However, in future years, it may be teaching thousands of fewer students, and it will need to do so with fewer resources. Given that reality, it behooves the state’s leadership to think about what the UW System should look like in the future as it tries to plug its current budget hole.

Ike Brannon is president of Capital Policy Analytics and a visiting fellow at the Badger Institute.