Citizen interest in a UW campus in Washington County dates back to the early 1960's. In 1964, a joint special committee appointed by the Washington County Board of Supervisors and the City of West Bend passed resolutions calling for West Bend to be the site of a future University of Wisconsin Center. In 1965, they agreed to purchase the Carl Pick farm and utilize 87 acres of the land for the founding of a University campus. Regent approval of the site was granted on November 12, 1965.
On August 23, 1966, an agreement was signed between the City, the County, and the University. The next few years saw the development of a plan for a campus as well as a number of changes in the original proposal. Groundbreaking for the new campus took place on July 12, 1967. Classes began in September, 1968, and the campus was dedicated on November 8, 1969.
The Washington County Board of Supervisors resolved on May 8, 1979, to proceed with an expansion project on the order of $1,500,000 and to assume 75% of this cost. However, the Mayor and Common Council of West Bend, claiming to lack funding for even 25% of the proposed project, refused to agree to any expansion for almost a year. Even student demonstrations failed to move the project forward in a timely manner. Dean Thompson's persistence, the work of citizen advocates, and the publicity generated by student and alumni activists, all led Mayor Pick to reverse his opposition to the project. By the end of 1979, the City gave its approval to the $1,500,000 expansion of the campus. Ground was broken for the new project on September 4, 1980, and the facility was dedicated thirteen months later. Total cost was $1,906,200 with approximately 34,300 square foot in space added.
By 1985, continuing enrollment growth prompted plans for a second campus expansion. The needs were clearly spelled out from the beginning of the process: computer laboratories, classrooms, faculty offices to accommodate a growing faculty, additional cafeteria space, theater storage, a bookstore, a large conference room and storage space. Unlike the first project, the new plans called for both extensive remodeling of existing space as well as new construction. The total construction and remodeling costs of the new expansion were $2,100,000. Groundbreaking took place in April of 1989, and the facilities were dedicated on April 1, 1990.
The completed expansion added approximately 21,143 square feet of new space and linked the original buildings into one unit. A new parking lot, and a cement balcony enhanced the upper level of the campus while the space between the Union and the expanded Library were now enclosed.
Ground breaking for the university's third expansion took place on May 23, 2001. The addition to the south side of the campus essentially turned the U-shaped campus into a square, surrounding a central outdoor courtyard. Paid for through a combination of Washington County, City of West Bend and donated funds, the $8.4 million dollar project added 71,816 square foot. New state-of-the-art science and computer labs, as well as additional classrooms were added. The project also included extensive renovation of 30,451 square feet of existing administration and faculty offices.
In October, 2007, County and City approvals were received for the completion of the third floor of the Collins Science Wing. Classroom space for an engineering program, in collaboration with UW-Platteville, will be developed.
The third floor build-out was completed in late 2008. Approximately 30,000 square feet of space was added, including a new Learning Center, state of the art lecture halls and classrooms, engineering labs, faculty offices, a commons area where students can relax or study, and a new Board room. A dedication and reception for the third floor was held on February 18, 2009.
University of Wisconsin System developed a plan to merge the state’s two-year UW Colleges with its four-year institutions, turning the 13 small schools into branch campuses of the larger universities. After approval by the Higher Learning Commission on July 1, 2018, the Washington County campus became an official branch campus of UW-Milwaukee. UWM at Washington County along with UWM at Waukesha comprise UWM's College of General Studies.