“College participation rates in Wisconsin have decreased overall by 14% since 2019”

Kimberly Wethal

The percentage of UW system freshmen from Adams County, for example, dropped by 62.5% between fall 2003 and fall 2023, from 40 students to 15, while the county population — albeit aging — grew by 5%, according to U.S. Census data. The percentage coming from Richland and Wood counties plummeted by nearly 58% and 66%, respectively. In other rural counties, the college participation level has stagnated or dipped slightly.

Conversely, the representation from places like Madison, Eau Claire and the greater Milwaukee area on UW campuses is growing.

About half of Wisconsin has just a single technical college campus nearby or no higher education options within a person’s “commuting zone” — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a cluster of counties that support one another’s economic activity — according to research by Nicholas Hillman, a UW-Madison professor in the School of Education and director of the Student Success Through Applied Research Lab.