The large-scale reduction of academic programs approved at the University of Northern Iowa this spring is unlikely to be repeated at Iowa’s other two regent universities, officials say, even as public universities grapple with a shifting higher education landscape.
University of Iowa and Iowa State University officials say they expect continued smaller shifts over time, as small numbers of programs are added or cut each year to reflect student interest and growing areas of study. But they don’t see large-scale program reduction on the horizon.
I think it will become more of a systematic, continuous process, something that people are keeping an eye on pretty much all the time,” said Dave Holger, ISU’s associate provost for academic programs and dean of the graduate college.
UNI this spring cut nearly 60 undergraduate and graduate majors and minors and restructured numerous others. It was a response to state budget cuts of recent years, as UNI faces more financial challenges because of heavy reliance on in-state students, who pay less in tuition than do out-of-state students.
An analysis of current and past academic catalogs shows the number of majors offered at all three universities has remained steady, with only slight year-to-year fluctuations, until the recent cuts at UNI. The number of undergraduate majors offered at UNI was 112 in the 2008-10 catalog, 105 in the 2010-12 catalog and 89 in the new 2012-14 catalog. Those totals count every bachelor’s degree offered, so for example a bachelor’s of science in chemistry and a bachelor’s of arts in chemistry would count as two offerings.
Before UNI’s cuts this spring, an academic program assessment several years ago resulted in reductions of “low-hanging fruit,” often programs that had no students in them, said Mike Licari, UNI associate provost for academic affairs.
With those reductions and the cuts this spring, UNI officials hope to be done with large-scale reductions, Licari said.
“We are not alone in confronting these challenges, and we are not alone in having to reduce program offerings,” he said. “We’re looking for some stability, although we also know that we can’t afford to sit still.”
Cutting a large number of programs in response to budget challenges doesn’t mean curriculum development at UNI is dead, Licari said, as faculty will continue to create and develop new offerings.
Academic programs at the universities undergo self assessments every seven years. But the state budget cuts of recent years have made program reviews a more frequent topic of discussion, ISU’s Holger said.
“It’s something that the last five years have forced everybody to look at,” he said.
Still, while some smaller or outdated programs have been cut in response to budget cuts, other programs have been added, leading to a stable total, officials say. The vetting process for adding or cutting a program typically goes through many levels of faculty, administrators and eventually the state Board of Regents, officials said.
The UI’s academic catalog actually shows slight growth in the number of bachelor’s degree offerings in the past five years, with the addition of about 20 majors in that time. That’s likely due in part to the development of more interdisciplinary programs that take existing courses from other areas and bundle them to create new majors, said Beth Ingram, UI associate provost for undergraduate education. There’s also been some shifting in foreign language offerings, with some small departments moved into larger departments, creating new degrees and tracks while cutting others. If a degree is cut, it typically takes two or three years to disappear from the catalog, as students finish the program, she said.
“During the time of transition, you’ll see an increase in degrees until students are finished and then we will shut down some of those degrees,” she said.
When numerous degrees are offered in related areas, such as physics and astronomy each having several bachelor’s offerings, it may count as four or five majors but they use many of the same core courses, so they are not expensive stand-alone programs, Ingram said.
“What we’ve tried to do is consolidate degrees where we can, make sure we’re efficient about delivering degrees, but also provide the breadth of what you might expect from a liberal arts institution,” she said. “Most universities adapt over time. It’s just a continual thing.”
The UI Graduate College in 2010 underwent a review of all programs that led to cutting 27 majors, sub-tracks and certificates, Graduate College Dean John Keller said.
“It seems like for all the restructuring and closures, on the other side that creates the opportunities for new programs to develop that are more timely, more current,” he said. “So the net number is probably not so different over time.”
He sees greater shifting in enrollments among programs, Keller said. In the past decade, enrollment in graduate programs in the humanities has decreased about 5 percent, he said, compared to a nearly 9 percent increase in graduate enrollment in health sciences.
“That has a lot to do with the development of new programs,” Keller said.
There are a lot of “cosmic tumblers” that will impact public higher education in the future, including funding model changes and government directives to produce graduates in high-demand areas, Keller said. But how that impacts program additions and cuts remains to be seen, he said.
“We know things are going to change, we’re just not sure how,” Keller said.