WICHITA, Kansas — Consider the mounting money problems facing public universities in Kansas.
Decades of ballooning tuition have made students and their families increasingly worried about college debt. Tech schools offer cheaper faster paths to a solid job. Help from taxpayers has waned.
Then came the pandemic. Campuses had to spend heavily to retool for safety during the outbreak. Still, large numbers of students and the money they would have spent on dorms, tuition and the like stayed away.
The University of Kansas predicted over the summer that it would only come up short — by a full 25% — on the money needed to cover its costs.
The Kansas Board of Regents had eyed cutting entire programs before the economic crisis that came with the pandemic. Now that cost-cutting takes on new urgency.
Departments with the majors that draw the smallest numbers of students find themselves in existential peril — forced to justify themselves either as money makers or as the reasons to take a college degree seriously.
The discussion puts a bullseye on 60 programs scattered across public universities in the state. While they typically offer classes that nearly all students need to graduate, they also draw the fewest students to pursue their majors — in history, in mathematics and other staple subjects.
That’s partly why making those cuts isn’t so simple. Schools have to weigh the needs of their students against the schools’ increasingly dire finances. And just because few students major in a program, doesn’t mean it isn’t essential for a university.
The majors getting a hard look aren’t obscure or outdated programs, like Secretarial Science (Fort Hays State University is already phasing that one out).
While they might not be popular as majors, just about everyone at the university takes classes in subjects such as math, history and biology to earn a diploma.
Of the 60 majors the Regents are reviewing, 34 are listed as supporting general education.
Universities would need to find a way to still offer things like U.S. History 101. That may mean dumping the tenured professor who’s written the textbook for an adjunct at a fraction of the cost.
Many of those adjuncts are already overworked, underpaid.
If the programs go away, students could have some jury-rigged options, like taking online classes from another school in Kansas. If Emporia State University’s chemistry major disappears, and its general education courses go with it, those students could be allowed to take an online version from Kansas State University.
Rich Sleezer, the chair of Emporia State’s Department of Physical Sciences, opposes the idea. Not only would his programs get cut, he argues it would hurt Emporia State students interested in med school or other scientific fields. Online chem classes might do in a pandemic, but Sleezer said those classes need to happen in-person.
“Medical schools do not want somebody who had an online chemistry lab,” Sleezer said. “They want us to do those face-to-face in the laboratory.”
Not guaranteed savings
Even those programs that don’t support general education won’t be so easy to cut. That’s because the same professors who would be tossed out with the major are teaching other, more popular majors too.
A professor teaching a senior level course in chemistry might also be teaching a needed upper level class for biochemistry and forensic science graduate students. Oftentimes one major can’t be cut, along with the professors teaching it, without neutering another.
Sleezer said about five years ago he had to cut a physical sciences major. But because there weren’t any professors that only taught for that specific program, no one was let go.
“It didn’t save a dime,” Sleezer said. “There were no resources whatsoever devoted to that and that alone.”
Not every program is so interconnected that there wouldn’t be any savings from losing it. And faculty make up the biggest expense for colleges. That makes it hard to save money without talking about axing professors.
But getting rid of that faculty also has some of the biggest impacts on how strong classes are.
“You can’t have these conversations about cost and not have similar conversations about what does this do to quality,” said Justin Ortagus, director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida.
The Regents began looking at the low enrollment programs before the coronavirus arrived in Kansas. But eight months after the virus shutdown campuses, the Regents have extra incentive to find places to cut.
“The economic realities are pretty harsh,” said Shelly Kiblinger, a member of the Kansas Board of Regents. “We (need) to make some of those very hard decisions.”
What’s best for students
Those low enrollment programs aren’t just getting scrutinized for savings. Kiblinger said they’re getting evaluated to see if they still meet student needs — college kids might be staying away because they don’t see a future with a history degree. That might mean needing to retool the program or that the university should reconsider why they offer it at all.
“If we identify programs that really aren’t meeting any need,” Kiblinger said, “it would be wrong for us to continue to offer such programs without really asking ourselves what purpose are those serving.”
And losing those programs to save money and keep tuition low — or at least keep it from raising any higher — could benefit all students.
Unless you’re planning on being a political science major like Emporia State junior Brayden Soper. His program graduates about seven students a year. Soper would be OK if Emporia State cut political science. Programs usually phase out rather than end suddenly. But a high schooler interested in that major would no longer have Emporia State as an option. Picking KU instead would mean paying $2,000 more a semester.
“For a lot of students, that would just completely be a dealbreaker,” Soper said.
Plus that small program size isn’t a problem for Soper — it’s a selling point. He prefers being in a major where he knows all the other students and professors.
“We get to get really comfortable with each other and have deep discussions,” Soper said. “I may not necessarily get that as much at one of the larger universities.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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