Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem

ACTA crowd.jpg

Open a marketing brochure for any college or university
in the United States and you’ll find an info-graphic touting the variety and
number of degree programs that the institution offers.  The more options, the rationale goes, the
more likely a student will find a desired specialty.  The distinction between programs can be
subtle, for instance “Music, General” versus “Musical Theatre,” or
Agricultural Engineering” versus “Agronomy and Crop

But the dreary fact is: higher education is in the midst
of a major financial crisis. 
Institutions’ bond ratings are falling and resources are in short
supply.   Boards of trustees must  figure out how to do more and better with
less. While administrative costs have to be examined, they are only part of the
problem.  According to former president
of the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of the Lumina Foundation
Robert C. Dickeson, “[t]he failure of governing boards to focus on academic
programs is arguably the single greatest cause of overspending.”

This month the American Council of Trustees and Alumni
(ACTA) is sending Dr. Dickeson’s guide,
Setting Academic Priorities: A Guide to
What Boards of Trustees Can Do
to ACTA’s network of more than 13,000
trustees around the country. It provides governing boards with a framework for
establishing academic program review policies that direct resources to
mission-critical areas of their institutions without neglecting students’ needs.
 Of course, achieving this goal must
entail consolidating some academic programs into larger, more cost-effective
units or eliminating them.  

Reallocating resources away from individual academic
programs is a challenging exercise and may well provoke a hue and cry from
faculty and their professional associations. 
This is why so many boards take the politically expedient path of making
across-the-board cuts whenever they are forced to reduce instructional spending.
 However, this tactic has limited value:  a Bain analysis of nearly 1,700 public and
private colleges finds that one-third of those institutions are on an
“unsustainable financial path” unless they get their spending under
control.   In the long-run, the “go along to get along”
approach of avoiding the tough decisions can be far more costly to the
institution–and to students. 

In our recent California state
, Best Laid Plans, The
Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education in California
, ACTA found
that there were 512 degree programs in the California State University system
that each produced fewer than ten graduates in 2010-11.  In addition, in 2011 the school discontinued
15 programs–while approving the addition of 19 more. Meanwhile, the nine
undergraduate campuses of the University of California ran 792 low-enrollment
programs in 2010-11.  Some of these
programs were repeated in multiple locations in the system: for example, a mere
14 UC students from five different campuses graduated with baccalaureate
degrees in Geophysics and Seismology. 

When faced with the numbers, the San Francisco Chronicle characterized the problem as “the obesity
of American higher education.”  But folks
on the inside thought differently.  Representatives
from UC responded
that “[l]ooking at data of graduates can misconstrue the purpose of the
program” and touted the “variety of courses (and) studies that allow students
to explore, become more well-rounded, more worldly, and better prepared to make
a difference in the world.”  Translation:
each campus is a kingdom unto itself, fielding as many programs as possible,
each with a complement of full professors, associate professors, and
assistants, rather than looking for the efficiencies of inter-campus
collaboration and resource-sharing. 

The protest missed the crucial fact that mindless
proliferation of courses costs a lot and often reduces, rather than enhances,
student opportunity.  The proliferation
of academic programs, as Robert C. Dickeson said, is “the real driver of cost
for the entire enterprise, academic and nonacademic.”In California especially,  variety is great, but it’s costly and available
only to students actually admitted. 
There are thousands of students being turned away from schools in the
California State System  because of “program impaction,”
when applicants must either meet additional admissions criteria or choose an
alternate major because their first choice is already filled to capacity. 

The more money that is spent on low enrollment courses,
the fewer resources available to spend on other priority areas–majors and
programs that a large number of students (and employers) want.

At the University of Virginia, observers raised different
objections when the board of visitors dared to question the president’s
financial plan.  In the course of the saga,
low enrollment courses were front and center.  One newspaper reported that the board felt
that the president “lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that
couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments
in classics and German.”   Meanwhile, the
higher education community reacted with statements  largely equating program review with the virtual
destruction of the liberal arts. 

As it turns out, the University of Virginia Department of
Germanic Languages and Literature has a faculty of fifteen: nine full or
associate professors, two assistant professors, and four lecturers or
instructors.  Yet, in 2010-11, the
Department graduated two undergraduate majors, one MA candidate and two PhD candidates.
Essentially, the UVA Board was asking whether, in
the midst of a budget crisis with tuition
38% between 2004 and 2010, it was unreasonable to investigate a more
cost-effective way to run its German program. University boards around the
country should ask themselves similar questions.  

Our high-tech age makes redundant, low enrollment
programs at multiple campuses an unjustifiable cost.   Schools are well positioned to form academic
consortia that will maintain broad options for students while keeping
institutional costs low.  There are
already good examples.  The Pennsylvania State
System of Higher Education (PASSHE), for instance, has 14 universities which have
formed consortia for courses in small majors such as philosophy and foreign
languages.  The program has been so
successful that PASSHE has added new majors such as Arabic and Chinese–and now,
in the depths of the budget crisis, the consortia are crucial for the
preservation of these vital languages.  Proving
that German need not be a dead language, eight North Carolina public
universities created a German Studies Consortium to share
offerings; a Russian Consortium and a Portuguese Consortium are also under
consideration.  The sad flip side to this
story is the University of Southern California which went it alone and was
forced to end the German major. 

Institutions clinging to outdated practices cannot
fulfill their educational missions. 
Governing boards must direct the process of change by standing up to
departments that to maintain inefficient and unpopular programs.  Raising an honest discussion on the efficacy
of a degree program does not diminish the value of the academic
discipline.  By carefully analyzing the
functions each program serves, and allocating resources accordingly, colleges
and universities can broaden student access without sacrificing quality of


One thought on “Higher Education’s ‘Obesity’ Problem”

  1. This is an example of the well-known “ratcheting effect” that afflicts other areas in our culture and economy. Once you have a German program, you have to keep it forever or be accused of being against the liberal arts. A better paradigm would say, “We need to teach modern languages and literature. How much can we devote to German, given that since 1900 we have also seen a need to teach Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Arabic, Farsi, and Portuguese?”

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