Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Texas Board Requires the Phasing Out of 64 Degree Programs With Low Enrollments

Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

Harold W. Hahn (left) and Fred W. Heldenfels IV were among the members of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board who determined which "underperforming" degree programs to cut. They are shown at Thursday's hearing, where college officials sought reprieves for some programs.

By Katherine Mangan | Chronicle of Higher Education
Austin, Tex.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted Thursday to phase out 64 degree programs that failed to attract enough majors under stricter enrollment guidelines the board enacted last year.

Another 145 programs the board deemed underperforming are also being voluntarily cut.

The board's decisions came program by program over four hours in which a parade of higher-education leaders pleaded with the board to spare their programs.

Board members say the cuts will allow the state to use its resources more efficiently, while critics counter that the board's actions will disproportionately hurt predominantly minority colleges and programs in mathematics and science.

Thirteen of the state's 25 undergraduate physics degree programs, for instance, were judged "underperforming." The board voted to phase out or consolidate six of them.

In all, the board identified 545 programs statewide that were underenrolled according to its new, more-stringent standards. For a bachelor's or associate degree, a program is defined as being underenrolled if it produced fewer than five majors per year, averaged over five years. The threshold for a master's degree is three per year, and for a doctorate, it's two per year.

Eliminating low-producing majors won't prevent a college from offering courses in that subject, board officials said.

"We're not losing anything. We're telling institutions, Either make all of your programs robust and successful, or concentrate on the things you do well," the state's higher-education commissioner, Raymund A. Paredes, told reporters during a conference call before the meeting. He was asked whether the move was related to calls from some regents and allies of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, for greater productivity in higher education.

"This process of accountability is something we're going to see more of," Mr. Paredes said. "We want to be able to report to Texas taxpayers how their money is being used."
Appeals for 'Core' Programs

Texas Southern University, a historically black institution, appealed the proposed elimination of five majors, in chemistry, math, physics, English, and art. (During Thursday's board meeting, the physics and math appeals were denied, and English and chemistry were given a two-year reprieve.)

Another historically black institution, Prairie View A&M University, appealed cuts in physics and chemistry. (The physics appeal was denied and chemistry was given a two-year extension). "The courses offered in the programs targeted for deletion are core components for engineering, nursing, and biology," the university's provost, E. Joahanne Thomas-Smith said in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

After being notified that they had programs that were underenrolled, Texas colleges agreed to cut 145 of those majors. The coordinating board, after an initial appeals process, then decided that colleges should be forced to phase out 95 more programs. For the rest of the programs that were deemed underenrolled, colleges were allowed to consolidate them with other departments or were given temporary reprieves while they try to increase their enrollments. Of the 95 programs that the board has recommended be forced to close, colleges made appeals to the full board to keep 44 programs.

The coordinating board has had the authority to cut low-performing majors since 1971, but this is the first time it has looked at every major at every state college and university and recommended widespread cuts.

Mr. Paredes denied criticisms that the cuts will undermine the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. Between the 2006 and 2010 fiscal years, the programs slated for closure graduated 1.7 percent of the state's physics majors and 0.7 percent of its STEM graduates, the coordinating board reports.

Recent research also shows, Mr. Paredes said, that paring down the number of majors students can choose from can help them focus and graduate faster. "Students have so many choices and majors they can get confused," he said.

Analysts with the Texas board said their thresholds for identifying "low-producing" degrees are more lenient than those of several other states that have been analyzing enrollment and completion numbers, including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina.

In April, the State of Louisiana Board of Regents voted to eliminate 109 degree programs that had low rates of completion; for bachelor's degrees, that meant that fewer than eight people completed the program per year. The Louisiana board had deemed more than 400 degree programs to be "underperforming," many of which ended up being consolidated into other departments.

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