A plan to merge the University of Wisconsin System’s 13 two-year colleges with the UW’s four-year institutions next summer has the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie concerned about losing prospective students.

The plan would transform the system’s 13 two-year schools into regional branches of the 13 four-year schools. Students would still be able to earn associate degrees, but they would bear the name of the four-year school. Students would get a wider range of courses to choose from and be able to take third- and fourth-year courses at the branch campus.

For example, two-year school UW-Barron County would cease to exist. Its buildings, faculty and staff would become a branch of UW-Eau Claire. Students who attend the branch campus would earn associate degrees from UW-Eau Claire and could complete four-year degrees through UW-Eau Claire.

“I...will do everything possible to maintain our historical link to UW-Barron County and remain a top choice for students who start their education there and continue to a four-year degree,” UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer said in a press release.

“In 2015-16, for example, more than a quarter of the UW-Barron County students who transferred to UW System institutions chose UW-Stout, and we must preserve that transfer pipeline.”

UW System enrollment figures show UW-Barron County has fallen in full-time equivalent student enrollment from 484 in 2010 to 315 in a preliminary count from fall 2017. That’s a drop of 169 students, or 35 percent.

Cross said the merger would be done effective July 1, 2018. “Essentially, there will be no change this fall or spring, and we look forward to seeing how to best leverage UW-Eau Claire to expand access to higher education by offering more general education and upper-level courses, as well as identify and reduce barriers to transferring credits within the UW System,” Cross said in an email to the UW-Eau Claire.

Chancellor James C. Schmidt said in an email to facility, staff and UW-Eau Claire students: “While it is too soon to identify all the opportunities this new structure could bring to students here and in Barron County, we do know that meeting the needs of students at both campuses will be our highest priority.”

Schmidt continued in the email: “UW-Eau Claire and UW-Barron County long have enjoyed an excellent relationship, with many students beginning their college careers in Rice Lake and completing their degrees in Eau Claire.”

Schmidt said he will talk in future weeks with faculty students and community leaders in the Chippewa Valley and Barron County to find ways to move forward.

Besides pairing UW-Barron County with UW-Eau Claire, the proposal would bring each UW Colleges campus under one of six other four-year public universities:

The Rock County college would join UW-Whitewater

The Baraboo/Sauk County and Richland colleges would join UW-Platteville

The Manitowoc, Marinette and Sheboygan colleges would join UW-Green Bay

The Washington County and Waukesha colleges would join UW-Milwaukee

The Marathon County and Marshfield/Wood County colleges would join UW-Stevens Point

The Fond du Lac and Fox Valley colleges would join UW-Oshkosh

UW-Stout and UW-River Falls would not be linked to a UW college.

Cross said in a statement that the merger will help the UW address declining enrollment at its two-year colleges, make it easier to transfer credits within the UW System and better address the challenge of Wisconsin’s aging population.

UW Extension programs would also come under new administration as part of the sweeping restructuring plan.

UW Extension’s Broadcasting and Media Innovations division — which includes Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio — would be brought under UW System Administration, along with the Business and Entrepreneurship Division, continuing education, outreach and UW Flexible Option programs. Cooperative Extension and conference centers owned by UW Extension would be merged with UW-Madison.

Cross said in a statement that the merger will help UW address declining enrollment at its two-year colleges, make it easier to transfer credits within the UW System and better address the challenge of Wisconsin’s aging population.

“Change often produces uncertainty, but we cannot be afraid to pursue needed reforms,” he said. “Our goal is to expand access and provide more educational opportunities for more students, while ensuring our faculty are appropriately organized and supported. We are committed to making the transition as smooth as possible for students, faculty, and staff.”

It’s not immediately clear what the restructuring would mean for programs and jobs in the UW Colleges and Extension.

Cross will bring the proposal to the UW Board of Regents for approval in November, officials said.

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