The headlines sounded positively devastating for higher education in Louisiana.
“Board of Regents decides to cut 100-plus Louisiana degree programs,” The Times-Picayune proclaimed. “University cuts run deep,” The [Monroe] News Star declared. “Local students to have fewer programs,” The [Houma] Courier lamented.
As it turns out, however, few students will feel the pain of the Board of Regents’ recent elimination and consolidation of academic programs.
By their very nature, programs on the chopping block were “low completer,” which means there was little or no demand for them, anyway. Fewer than eight students per year graduated with each targeted undergraduate degree, or five in the case of master’s degrees and two in a doctoral degree.
Also consider that those students already on track to earn their degrees will be allowed to finish before the programs are scrapped. And students who come along after that will be able to take courses in a subject area, such as a foreign language, for which no degree is offered. They will just graduate with a degree that lists something else.
Another 190 academic programs will be consolidated in some form, which means the course track won’t be lost but instead will be combined with another program—in some cases, as a concentration in an existing major.
The changes are part of an ongoing review by the Board of Regents to streamline degree offerings by taking a closer look at programs with the fewest graduates to determine whether each degree is needed or can be incorporated into another program.
The process has been done twice since 2009, when the board also issued a moratorium on new programs, with the exception of courses at community and technical colleges aimed at meeting emerging workforce demands.
But this year’s review of 459 programs relied upon a stricter set of standards, looking at graduation rates over a three-year period—not a five-year span—and no programs were considered off-limits.
Newly appointed Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell says the changes are just starting.
“These program terminations and consolidations represent a specific effort by Regents to evaluate and make changes to our academic offerings across the state and undoubtedly demonstrate our commitment to better efficiency in the delivery of our services,” he says.
“This is just the beginning of the process, and I expect we will next review our offerings through a regional lens to determine whether we’re meeting the needs of students, employers and the workforce both for the short and the long term.”
Unlike other efforts currently under way aimed at higher education—specifically, multimillion-dollar budget cuts and the merger of Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans—these cuts were met with measurably less resistance by the campuses.
That’s true even at Southern University, whose Baton Rouge campus lost more programs than any other institution in the state.
System President Ronald Mason Jr. says the New Orleans campus had already lost a lot of courses after Hurricane Katrina, and the entire system already was going through a reorganization of its own that had incorporated some of the changes even before the Board of Regents began its process.
“We are losing foreign language majors and a chemistry major,” he says. “We’ll have to see how it plays out. There was not high demand for those at the time of the review, but it was something we were looking to develop, particularly increasing science majors among African Americans. But we’re going to continue to go through the program and see if we can’t modernize our program inventory as we move forward.”
Thirty-one LSU programs were scrutinized for low graduation rates. Through negotiations and discussions with the Board of Regents, says Gil Reeve, vice provost for academic affairs, the university managed to maintain 15 of them.
Nine of them will be reviewed over the next two years for signs of improvement; the rest will be merged into existing programs. The university agreed to terminate four programs, including German and Latin, which already were on the chopping block.
The elimination of the master of arts degree in geography caused some consternation, but the university offers a master of science degree in the same subject area, and students will receive that degree instead.
“The overall impact of what we’re doing is relatively minor,” Reeve says. “We hated to lose degree programs in foreign languages, but we just couldn’t justify them. We were satisfied where we were able to maintain or consolidate programs into other degree programs.”
LSU’s plan is to avoid the Regents’ low-completer list next time around.
“We’re going to attend to our own enrollment numbers to make sure we have the numbers so we won’t have to go through future reviews,” Reeve says.
Karen Denby, the Regents’ associate commissioner of academic affairs, says the colleges will be more efficient with class sizes, faculty loads and graduation rates as a result of the cuts.
“That is the intention,” she says.
But people who agree with the cuts say they don’t expect the measures to save higher education a significant amount of money. In most cases, Reeve says, the courses still will be offered and faculty members still will teach them.
“I don’t think there will be a lot of dollar savings based on these decisions,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of extra resources available, so any money saved will be turned right around to support high demand for other classes. I don’t think the impact initially is going to be that noticeable, but over time, it will provide us some flexibility to allow universities to direct faculty. A lot of specialized programs do constrain us more.”