Risking one’s essence to survive
In an effort to adapt to fewer students and less money, struggling rural colleges are cutting corners and offering less, but it might be self-defeating
CSTEVENS POINT, Wis. hancellor Bernie Patterson’s message to his campus was blunt: To remain solvent and relevant, his 125-year-old university needed to reinvent itself.
Some long-standing liberal arts degrees, including those in history, French and German, would be eliminated. Career-focused programs would become a key investment. Tenured faculty members could lose their jobs. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Patterson explained in a memo, could “no longer be all things to all people.”
Patterson’s plan came as Stevens Point and many other public universities in rural America face a crisis. Such colleges have served as anchors for their regions, educating generations of residents.
Now student enrollment has plummeted, money from states has dropped and demographic trends promise even worse days ahead.
Universities like Stevens Point are experiencing the opposite of what is happening at some of the nation’s most selective schools, like Harvard, Northwestern and the University of California-Berkeley, where floods of applications have led to overwhelming numbers of rejected students. But critics say that in trying to carve out a sustainable path for Stevens Point, administrators are risking the very essence of a fouryear college experience.
“Part of the fear is, is this an attempt to really kind of radically change the identity of this institution?” asked Jennifer Collins, a political-science professor, who wondered aloud whether Stevens Point would become a “pre-professional, more polytechnic type of university.”
Kim Mueller, 21, a senior who hopes to become a history teacher at a Wisconsin high school, said her first reaction to the proposal was: “What is a university without a history major?”
Nestled in a city of 26,000 residents, Stevens Point has seen its fortunes rise and fall with its region. Founded more than a century ago to train teachers, and distinguished by Old Main, an 1894 building with a famous cupola that overlooks the campus, the college grew as people moved to the area’s paper mills and farms.
The college became a pathway to the middle class, a respected place to get a bachelor’s degree without spending too much money or moving too far from home. By the 1970s, it had strengthened its liberal arts programs and joined the state university system.
But in recent decades, troubling signs cropped up. Young families left rural Wisconsin for Madison and Milwaukee, which had their own University of Wisconsin campuses. Fewer students graduated from high school in the area around Stevens Point, including a 14 percent drop in its home county from 2012-16. And under former Gov. Scott Walker, state funding declined and a mandatory tuition freeze made it hard for the college to make up the difference.
By last spring, the university, which has about 7,700 students, was looking at a two-year deficit of about $4.5 million. The state, which had provided half the university’s budget in the 1970s, was now covering only 17 percent of it.
“Sometimes, I liken it to climate change,” said Greg Summers, the provost, who helped come up with the plan to remake Stevens Point. “The higher-ed climate has changed profoundly and it’s not going back to the old normal.”
The turmoil is not unique to Stevens Point, where nearly half the students are the first generation in their family to attend college. Public universities far from urban centers are hurting for students and money.
Almost four hours from Chicago, Western Illinois University eliminated dozens of vacant faculty positions last year and announced it would lay off 24 professors, including some with tenure.
The locations of college campuses can be a reflection of a bygone America. Most universities were founded generations ago, when rural communities were thriving and when traveling across a state to a larger urban campus was more complicated. As people moved toward cities and the Sun Belt, and as cars and planes connected the country, many rural universities have fallen on hard times.
At Stevens Point, administrators are trying to make up for increasingly elusive freshmen.
Their solutions: Recruit more midcareer adults to programs such as nursing. Promote majors such as business and education with clear career paths. And invest in teaching specialties with local appeal — forestry or fisheries management.
In the coming months, after a final round of campus review, Patterson will present a list of proposed changes to the University of Wisconsin regents. Summers, the provost, said that by making hard decisions now and “doing fewer things better,” the university could find a more stable future.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students work during a lab Nov. 27 as part of a plant biology class. Students and dollars have plummeted at small colleges like Stevens Point. Leaders are scrambling for fixes.