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Leader of Wisconsin's private college association retiring after 30 years as president

Edgewood College science center

Sonderegger Science Center on the campus of Edgewood College, which is a member of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Rolf Wegenke, who has led the state association of private colleges and universities for the past three decades, plans to retire from his post next summer.

Rolf Wegenke

Wegenke

Wegenke, 73, became president of the Wisconsin Association of Private Colleges and Universities, also known as WAICU, in 1992. The Madison-based organization represents 23 private nonprofit schools and their nearly 54,000 students. WAICU members include Edgewood College and Marquette University.

“I think we’re in a very good place,” he said. “The presidents have been very entrepreneurial during the pandemic and the last recession and the recession before that.”

Among Wegenke’s biggest challenges has been confronting the public perception that private colleges are a much pricier alternative to public universities. A focus on financial aid has been a big factor in cutting through that belief.

The average annual sticker price for a student attending a WAICU school is $33,422, he said, but the average financial aid package is $29,007. That means the average out-of-pocket cost for a student is $4,415.

“How we can tell that story and get people to listen is hard,” he said, especially in more recent years when a growing share of the public is questioning the value of a college degree.

Private colleges have some built-in advantages, Wegenke said. Chief among them is their flexibility to respond to workforce needs. The Medical College of Wisconsin, for example, established two branch campuses in northern Wisconsin to address a shortage of physicians in the region.

One of the interview questions Wegenke fielded before being hired for the job: What would you do to control costs?

Wegenke said he initially panicked. Then he suggested pooling colleges’ purchasing power.

The idea is among Wegenke’s proudest accomplishments as president, though he gives most of the credit to the college presidents who put up their own funds while trusting him to set up the cost-savings agreements. From managing health care plans to purchasing information technology to managing retirement funds, the arrangements have saved $232 million for WAICU members, he said.

Another point of pride: Nearly a third of students attending WAICU schools are eligible for a Pell grant, the federal subsidy for college students from families with the greatest financial need, and 27% are students of color.

Across the University of Wisconsin System, a quarter of students received a Pell grant and about 18% identified as students of color last fall.

Wegenke graduated from UW-Madison and has a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He spent the first 17 years of his career working in economic development for the gubernatorial administrations of Democrat Patrick Lucey, Democrat Martin Schreiber, Republican Lee Dreyfus, Democrat Anthony Earl and Republican Tommy Thompson.

A national search firm will start looking for WAICU’s next leader in November or December, with a transition expected in August.

Wegenke has no specific retirement plans aside from sleeping in and spending more time with his wife. They live in Sun Prairie.


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