David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Making The Cut

August 19, 2018

As I prepare a presentation to Southwestern Michigan College faculty in a week, covering, in part, the state of higher education today, I am struck by the timeliness of news coming from The University of Akron that it will eliminate 80 academic programs.  Since I have a childhood friend at the U of A, I have more interest in this story than I might for any number of other institutions of higher ed and their program cuts.  The good news is that he seems safe. In fact, Akron claims that no faculty are being let go as a result of these program cuts. 

The apparent decision-making process used by Akron to make these cuts exemplifies so much about  Higher Education's challenges today.  A lot of information can be found from their corresponding webpage for their academic review (by the way, the specific programs can be found via the drop-down menus near the bottom of the page).  Much more can be inferred.

First off, the dissolution of 80 degree programs sounds like a lot, which it is, but with 414 degree tracks, that is barely 19% of all of their offerings. At some point, most colleges currently have to reverse their growth strategies. Expansion defined higher education over the last three decades.  Most institutions had chosen to expand in any number of ways: by offering more programs (as I am guessing Akron did); by opening more locations/campuses; by offering online delivery of programs; and/or simply aggressively going after more students (usually tied to an expansion of buildings or staff, as much as expansion of programs, campuses or deliveries).

A decade ago, I was horrified to hear at an advisory meeting for West Virginia University, my Alma mater, that they were not content with around 30,000 students and wanted to grow more.  They already were about 40% larger than when I attended in the early 1980's.  And it wasn't just WVU. Every college desired to grow (this year, Michigan State and Purdue both have more freshman students than dorm rooms, a sign that some of these schools aren't ready to scale back yet. . . as well the uncomfortable fact that "Revenge of the Nerds" was quite understanding of higher ed). Usually the only thing not expanding during this period of "grow, grow, grow" mentality was the hairline of the men making these decisions.

An argument could be made that 334 degree tracks are still way too many for Akron.  That will be up to them to decide, but as an outsider, I am heartened by the notion of constriction, of trying to do fewer things better.  As Dawes sing, you may have to "quit everything until you find one thing you won't."

Of course, closer analysis may suggest that the Zips are quitting a lot fewer than 80.  Higher education is notorious for wrapping similar things in different packages. For instance, Akron in some situations is eliminating two versions of basically the same program (often a Master's of Art versus a Master's of Science): their Education School's degrees in Education Administration, Higher Education, could be either an MA or an MS, the difference being, I guess, foundational  math/science courses.  (The cynic in me would argue that these degrees have never had a foundation in math or science.)  Akron also made the decision to eliminate the MA and the MS tracks for Counseling--Classroom Guidance.  Why ever divert these streams?  Is anyone surprised they both ended up as trickles?

Redundancy also appears in variations of degree concentrations, even when the degree itself is unchanged (an MS, for example).  Four different versions of MS degrees in Special Education have been eliminated.  Akron openly admits that declining enrollment in each and the need to focus on one particular field of education (Urban) led to the decision to eliminate these 4 programs. Similarly 4 programs in "Fashion Merchandising" have been cut, including the dubious sounding "Fiber Arts" (perhaps this could have been an interdisciplinary program between Fashion Merchandising and Culinary Arts).

My gut also tells me that cuts were tied to trendy enrollment strategies that didn't work. A number of programs are listed as BS/MS (or BA/MA) that appear to be accelerated paths taking a student through two degrees (these are often promised as being degrees completed in 5 years, rather than the 6 years typically needed to complete the two degrees).  A BS/MS in mathematics has been phased out based upon "very limited enrollment." And in a twist to this accelerated path, the rather innovative BS/MA in Applied Math/Economics is going away (usually these paths are arts->arts or science-> science, so the arts->science surprises me). In another interesting twist, their "Natural Science/Polymer Science" BS/MS, labeled as having "very low enrollment," is being cut, despite that elsewhere we learn that polymer science in general is a growth opportunity for them. This is a healthy reminder of the reason we have ended up with the term "downsizing."

Frankly, colleges and universities could do a better job with these "accelerated" paths to multiple degrees by laddering their programs more effectively; i.e., have an associate degree in a program lead naturally to the first two years of the applicable bachelor program; or, to have the two years of the master program lead naturally to the first two years of the applicable doctorate program.  Clearly, Akron had to make tough decisions because of the lack of laddering or because external forces are forcing credential inflation that makes the lower degrees irrelevant to careers. Examples of the first can be found in Akron's elimination of surgical technology and radiologic technology associate degrees; examples of the second can be found in the cuts to Dietetics, Didactic BS (where the Master's degree is now the entry-level credential). Odds are that pay in the Dietetics, Didactic, field are not rising to counter the extra costs that will come with someone earning the advanced degree in the field. 

Some of the more fascinating examples of cut programs come from Akron's acknowledgement of competition. Their BS in Athletic Training has been eliminated because, in part, there are 26 such programs in Ohio alone. Are there that many athletic training supporters? (I am sure most people could see that joke coming from a mile away.) Often, Akron is conceding programs to Kent State, which apparently has greater enrollment than Akron's.  Too bad there isn't as much gnashing of teeth when Akron loses to Kent State here as there probably is if they lost to the same Golden Eagles on the basketball court. By the same token, the pressures felt by online competitors has to be addressed by so many institutions, much as Akron did with their Geography/Geographic Information Sciences MS (which sounds vaguely virtual to me anyway). 

Perhaps most disheartening to traditional academics in the world of Arts & Sciences, Akron made hard decisions about traditional "scholarly" programs with "low enrollment" or "one graduate in three years" kind of data.  This list includes old standbys:

  • PhD and MA in History;
  • PhD and MA in Sociology;
  • PhD in Electrical Engineering;
  • PhD in Computer Engineering;
  • MBA in International Business;
  • BA in Art, History Emphasis;
  • BA in French;
  • BS in Mathematics (apparently the trend is toward degrees in Applied Math?);
  • BS in Physics;
  • BS in Computer Information Systems, Web Development.

If Akron is correct in saying that these 80 cut programs only serve about 5% of their student population, one can only wonder why it took them so long, especially since no faculty positions are being lost. I guess the moral of the story is that this is not your grandfather's university anymore. Of course my grandfather's university never pretended to push fiber arts.

Dawes. "Quitter." We're All Gonna Die. 2016.