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Different approaches to sagging degree programs

To make up a $45M budget shortfall, West Virginia University has announced its plan to eliminate more than 30 degree programs and lay off nearly 10% of its professional faculty. The move has garnered an extraordinary amount of criticism because WVU’s plan initially eliminated all foreign language instruction.

Earlier this week, and citing “unprecedented fiscal, societal and political challenges,” Miami University in Oxford, OH also announced that it must make changes that will affect instruction. The university has identified 17 low-enrollment degree programs – all in the Humanities division – that must make changes to increase their enrollment or risk being eliminated.

President Elizabeth Mullenix has challenged the affected faculty to develop strategies in at least one of four areas. The acceptable strategies include developing a minor or certificate program that could potentially attract more student interest. The administration also suggested the faculty develop “exciting new courses or other learning opportunities.” Another acceptable strategy to increase enrollment could involve combining stand-alone majors into a single major with multiple concentration options. The university is also interested in collaborations with other departments and/or divisions to create what it terms “super majors or degree programs.”

In other words, the university is taking a measured approach to the changes it may eventually need to make to instruction. The administration is more interested in preserving majors and increasing enrollment than it is in cutting capacity.

Miami University’s unduplicated headcount dropped more than 6% between 2019-20 and 2020-21. Prior to that, its enrollment had steadily improved over the last decade. Additionally, the university’s overall budget increased by $50M between 2022-23 and 2023-24. Nonetheless, the university has signaled that it cannot continue to support degree programs that don’t pull their own weight.

Successful degree programs will bring in more cash than unrelated business ventures will

There’s nothing wrong with renovating, reimagining, or even eliminating degree programs that don’t pull in students. In fact, it makes the most sense if the institution is truly invested in its educational mission. Fix what’s not working, rather than giving up on your core capacity.

And this is coming from a university whose target market is traditional college age students, and those seeking graduate degrees. They don’t have the advantage of being able to recruit from a large pool of non-traditional students. Additionally, they can’t offer high-quality, low-cost education to their entire student body. Practically speaking, for every scholarship they offer, they need to attract several full-price students to make up for that.

They’re not making plans to sell retail spaces in their parking lots. Or operating profit-seeking businesses that are unrelated to their primary mission using tax dollars approved for their operations. Or planning multi-million dollar buildings that have sorely limited academic value.

Instead, they find a way to add value to their instruction as the primary strategy to increase their enrollment. (Is it too much to ask for an administration that focuses on the institution’s educational mission to the exclusion of every other thing?)

Photo Credit: Brandon C, via Flickr