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UW-Eau Claire committed to rural vitality in Barron County

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is doubling down on its commitment to UW-Eau Claire – Barron County in response to Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman’s charge to universities in the state to work with their branch campuses to determine how they can better serve their communities.

Tuesday’s Universities of Wisconsin announcement regarding ending in-person instruction at two branch campuses and closing UW-Platteville Richland reinforces the need to ensure the focus of branch campuses aligns with their communities and market realities facing universities across the country. UW-Eau Claire has been engaged in such discussions since 2017 when UW-Barron County became a branch campus of UW-Eau Claire.

“From the outset, we have focused on building from a position of strength,” said Billy Felz, vice chancellor for enrollment management at UW-Eau Claire. “Results this year are bearing fruit. Fall headcount enrollment is up 1.9% from last year, including growth in both the Launch program and at the Barron campus. Our retention efforts on the Barron campus are also showing positive results. This is a true testament to the hard work and dedication faculty and staff offer their students at Rice Lake.”

Chancellor James Schmidt will be in Rice Lake on Nov. 15 to meet with UW-Eau Claire – Barron County faculty and staff, area business leaders, county board members, the county executive and other elected officials to outline further plans to strengthen academic offerings at Barron County as an investment in the economic vitality of the region.

“Rural communities are struggling and need universities and colleges in their region to be proactive partners in finding solutions to stabilize populations and attract and retain a viable workforce,” Schmidt said. “By collaborating with our partners in the region, we believe UW-Eau Claire – Barron County can play a vital role in creating opportunity for young people and their families as well as nontraditional students and adults planning to complete their degrees. Our goal is to offer high school students an alternative to leaving the area to obtain a four-year degree or find a job. We want to provide the option of remaining in the area to obtain a college degree while working in a productive and rewarding career.”

Initiatives the university and UW-Eau Claire – Barron County are working on include:

  • Offering a four-year professional studies major at the Barron County campus starting in fall 2024. This is an opportunity for high school students to earn a college degree while remaining in the area to obtain jobs, gain invaluable work experience and build economic stability.
  • Encouraging area employers to offer tuition support for employees and their families, making it more viable for them to live and work in the area.
  • Increasing dual enrollment opportunities where high school students can take courses at Barron County while completing high school.
  • Exploring new partnerships with UW Extension Barron County to ensure students have several paths to success.
  • Increasing our commitment to serving underrepresented students.
  • Continuing the Launch program, which allows students to gain more skills to succeed in a four-year degree program.

Thanks to the $9.4 million grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. UW-Eau Claire has already been developing an integrated approach to support health care, human services and the economy in northwestern Wisconsin. UW-Eau Claire – Barron County is well-positioned to follow this collaboration model to address critical needs in education and small business development. Existing partnerships already in place will provide an important launch pad for implementing this plan. For example, the UW-Eau Claire Small Business Development Center (SBDC) opened on the UW-Eau Claire – Barron campus in 2019. In 2022, the Barron County Economic Development Corp. presented the Exceptional Partner Award to the UW-Eau Claire SBDC.

“I have always stressed that regional comprehensive universities — and their branch campuses — exist to serve the public good,” Schmidt said. “We are stronger by working together. Barron County Board Chair Jeff French has said we must find opportunities to make our Rice Lake campus even better. I agree and look forward to working with Jeff and our other partners to ensure UW-Eau Claire – Barron County is integral to serving the region.”