By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – As the nation enters the 2024 election year, one of the most fractious issues is immigration – illegal or otherwise. Many Americans are worried about the seemingly endless flow of migrants across the U.S. southern border; others want to protect people seeking political asylum; still others believe a modernized legal entry system will help ease chronic talent shortages at home.

Into that emotional fray enters the Universities of Wisconsin with a plan to open its doors to more foreign-born students while helping itself cope in an era of stagnant enrollment.

The goal is not to replace any Wisconsin students but to help make up for the fact there are 20,000 fewer students at UW campuses than there were 10 years ago, thanks to a declining pool of in-state high school students and some attrition in interest in earning a four-year degree. International students make up about 4% of UW enrollment – much of it concentrated at UW-Madison – while neighboring states Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan and Iowa report higher shares, in most cases double or more.

A Boston-based company called Shorelight helps connect international students to a reported 84 public and private colleges across the country; UW-Whitewater and UW-River Falls approved contracts with that firm in November. The Board of Regents approved a second round of Shorelight contracts for UW-Eau Claire, UW-Green Bay, UW-Platteville and UW-Superior in December and another agreement between Kings Education, also of Boston, and UW-Stout. Kings has previously worked with UW-Madison on placing international students.

With a UW goal of doubling international student enrollment by 2028, those kind of relationships with major recruiters will be needed. There may also be room for smaller, entrepreneurial approaches such as US-University Pathways, a Madison-based company that doesn’t wait for international students to learn about Wisconsin just as they’re ready for college. It’s training them in high school.

Bing Liang, the president of US-University Pathways, pitched his unique firm at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium in November. His approach: Use Wisconsin high-school curricula and Wisconsin teachers to educate high school students in their home countries in hopes they will wind up in Wisconsin colleges.

With 100 students in Ukraine, Portugal and China, and many more expected to be enrolled in Africa and Central America in coming years, US-University Pathways is undergoing a growth spurt – starting from Liang alone to 10 employees in the past year or so. Liang says the company has thus far partnered with UW-Green Bay, UW-Platteville, St. Norbert College and Edgewood College.

The basic business model is a combination of tuition and commissions for recruiting students, as well as scholarships offered by Wisconsin colleges to prospective students.

“(We) are really trying to solve the issue of declining enrollments that many Wisconsin universities are facing. We’re trying to prepare students in their home countries through a Wisconsin high-school education.” Liang said.

“We want them to be proud of Wisconsin, at home, so they are motivated to come to Wisconsin universities after they get a high-school diploma from Wisconsin,” he added.

Not every high-school kid in Portugal, China or Ukraine longs to wear Badger red, dance to “Jump Around” during football games or learn every nuance of Wisconsin culture. However, the notion of introducing international students to the Wisconsin in high school – before they may choose from hundreds of American universities – makes sense. It improves the odds.

Universities are also free to be selective in who they admit, especially in a world where strife could be inadvertently imported through students from global hotspots.

Liang comes by his affinity for Wisconsin naturally. Born in China, he was educated at Madison College, UW-Platteville and Edgewood, where he earned a doctorate in Higher Educational Leadership. He’s also active in community groups and says he’s made Wisconsin his home.

It’s hard to know if or when the larger immigration struggle will be solved, if at all, because the start of an election year makes progress harder. It’s reassuring to know, on the other hand, that ways to attract students and workers to Wisconsin are being explored in ways big and small. In a competitive region, nation and world, falling behind on educated and trained talent is not an answer.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council in Madison. He can be reached at