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Two University of Wisconsin campuses are considering layoffs, furloughs and early retirement incentives as they stare down large budget deficits, according to letters sent to campus employees Monday.

In southwest Wisconsin, UW-Platteville predicts its budget will fall $9.7 million short in the 2024 fiscal year. On the state’s southeast border, UW-Parkside expects a budget deficit of at least $4 million by the end of the current fiscal year. 

The two campuses, though on opposite sides of the state, are battling strikingly similar challenges. Both attributed their budgetary woes to declining enrollment, high inflation, reduced state funding and a decade-long tuition freeze.

UW-Platteville enrolled roughly 6,200 students in 2022, down from some 8,700 students a decade before, according to system data. Over the same period, UW-Parkside’s enrollment dropped to just under 4,000 students from about 4,800.

In June, Wisconsin lawmakers passed a two-year budget cutting the system’s budget by $32 million — what Republican legislators said campuses’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs would cost over the time frame. The system can receive the funding if it proves it would instead go toward workforce development initiatives. 

In contrast, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had proposed a $305 million budget increase for the UW System for the next two fiscal years. 

An April report from Wisconsin Policy Forum found that the state provided its four-year colleges some of the lowest per-student funding in the country, at $15,079 per student. The national average is $17,733.

Democratic lawmakers from Kenosha, where UW-Parkside is located, put the blame for the campus’ shortfall on their Republican colleagues.

“The Republicans have attacked the UW System from almost the first day of their majority,” said state Rep. Tod Ohnstad. “If their goal is to make a college education inaccessible for average Wisconsin families, they are well on their way,” said Ohnstad in a statement Monday.

State Sen. Bob Wirch echoed that sentiment.

“Make no mistake – these cuts will hurt our community and were entirely avoidable,” Wirch said in a statement.

However, state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican representing nearby Racine, called the proposed cuts a potential pathway toward rightsizing UW-Parkside.

“There are fewer students than before the pandemic, and the college age population isn’t going to increase anytime soon,” he said Tuesday in an email. “It’s easy for Democrats to throw money at an issue, and say ‘We’ve fixed it!’ That’s just a Band-Aid.”

Systemwide challenges

Jay Rothman, president of the University of Wisconsin system, called the campuses’ circumstances unfortunate but not unexpected.

“Our universities are facing demographic, political and economic realities that require hard, though necessary decisions”, he said in a statement Monday. “We are in a war for talent, and we would rather be investing in recruiting, retaining and graduating students to improve lives and communities and to meet current and future workforce needs.”

The system’s 13 university campuses have seen almost universal enrollment declines over the past decade.

Ten University of Wisconsin campuses expect to run a deficit in 2023-24, according to the system’s board regents. And UW-Parkside and UW-Platteville are not the first system campuses to react to these financial pressures. 

Earlier this month, UW-Oshkosh announced it would lay off roughly 200 nonfaculty staff and administrators — about 20% of its employees. It also plans to furlough all faculty for some period of time beginning this fall.

UW-Oshkosh cited problems similar to those at UW-Parkside and UW-Platteville: a loss of students combined with a drop in state funding.

A small branch of UW-Platteville, known as the Richland Center, also halted in-person instruction last November, blaming low enrollment and financial constraints.