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Degree-cutting more valuable in P.R. than cost savings

If you are impressed by the Louisiana Board of Regents for Higher Education announcing they will review 459 degree programs (nearly a third extant) of the state’s institutions for termination, and/or wailing and gnashing of teeth that will emanate from some in these institutions, don’t be.

Building on a similar review conducted a few years ago but now with more exacting criteria, the Regents want institutions at all levels concerning these programs identified as having too few students complete them to justify their existence to do any of terminate them, consolidate them into other programs, or to convince the Board that they should be allowed to continue existing at that particular institution. It is not entirely, but greatly, much ado about nothing.

For one, some of these programs already have been selected by their own schools, accurately reading ahead, for elimination. Faced with declining state revenues, they internally chose these out of cost/benefit ratios. For example, at my institution Louisiana State University Shreveport, with almost no graduates over the past few years, the Geography major already is being phased out.

Which is why in many of these instances savings will be minimal. Often, these programs existed because they easily could attach themselves to resources for others. In the case of Geography at LSUS, it used to operate with one-and-half positions, then got pared to one-half (four courses a year). But even dropping the major now won’t cause any real reduction in costs because some geography classes still must be taught on behalf other majors for them to meet accreditation standards, such as in social studies education.

Another kind of termination also really will save no money at all. For example, the University of New Orleans has its Master of Arts in Political Science on the chopping block – even though its Ph.D. program continues robustly. Masters students take the same classes as Ph.D. candidates, only fewer of them, and can present the faculty with a creative work, like Ph.D. students, to complete the degree, the only difference being their thesis is a shorter, less-involved work than a dissertation required of the terminal degree. (They do have an option to take more coursework in place of a thesis.) That so few student credit hours would be lost by not having M.A. students in classes means even without the degree the same number of faculty members will be needed to teach the same number of courses. In other words, there really are no savings there by getting rid of this degree.

Then there are those majors that are connected substantially to others. Many on the list, like Mathematics at LSUS and its Mathematics Education (grades 6-12) degrees, even are tagged on the list as candidates for consolidation as they may reflect duplication. The strategy here could make Math Ed a concentration within Math, where perhaps 90 of 120 hours would be similar between the two. This might lead to freeing up some minimal faculty resources (maybe a half to one position, if even that) but not many savings.

I’m not familiar with everything on the list but my guess is there are few, maybe five percent, of those programs listed would entail elimination of entire disciplines with more than one faculty member, where the savings will be most significant. Thus, whatever gets cancelled in aggregate will not add up to much relatively speaking; more than eight figures annually spent less would surprise me which would represent about three percent of the state’s contribution to higher education if cuts end up even that high.

Especially from those few folks whose necks will be on the line you’ll hear about how these cuts will do this or that deleterious thing, and they may be true. Yet however monumental and drastic the exercise may come off as, in terms of savings and disruption to institutions it hardly will be dramatic, and, from the perspective of the Regents, more valuable for public relations purposes to show higher education is “serious” about reining in costs to distract from the really big-ticket savings items it wishes to avoid such as institution closures and mergers and consolidation of governing boards. We’ll know the Board is serious about cost containment when it advocates these actions.

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