MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The University of Wisconsin System's two-year schools would merge with its four-year campuses under a plan system President Ray Cross announced Wednesday in hopes of boosting flagging enrollment.

The plan calls for making the system's 13 two-year schools open 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.

The plan is designed to combat declining enrollment at the two-year schools and keep them open. According to a news release from the university system announcing the plan, enrollment at the schools has dropped 32 percent since 2010, costing the schools tuition and fees.

What's more, system officials fear the number of college-age students will shrink over the next 20 years as Wisconsin's population ages. The number of people in the state ages 65 to 84 is expected to increase by more than 90 percent by 2040, according to projections from UW-Milwaukee.

The merger should help make the two-year colleges more attractive to students, system spokeswomen Stephanie Marquis said. Associate degrees will carry more clout because they'll come from the four-year schools, transfers would be easier and classes would be more convenient for commuter students as they progress from associate degrees to bachelor degrees, she said.

"Our market for students is shrinking," she said. "We're trying to get in front of that as much as possible."

The plan also calls for UW System administration to absorb UW Colleges, the entity that operates the two-year schools. UW-Madison would absorb UW-Extension's outreach efforts in the state's 72 counties. System administration would take over Extension's other functions, including Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and online Flex Option courses.

"The dramatic demographic declines in this state are undeniable and we have been working hard to ensure the future viability and sustainability of our small campuses," Cathy Sandeen, UW Colleges and Extension chancellor, said in the news release. "Our goal is to ensure the successful future for these campuses because we need more doors open wider to more people in this state than ever before."

Cross plans to present the plan to the Board of Regents for approval in November.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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