U.S. Colleges Cutting Courses to Curtail Campus Costs

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by Raven L. Hill

Ronald Harris had many reasons for attending Southern University and A&M College but one rose to the top: the architecture program.

When it comes to producing African-American licensed architects, Southern ranks in the top five among historically Black colleges, which, by some estimates, collectively produce 35 percent of Black licensed architects. Southern’s mission statement describes the school as playing a part in “advocating for African-American voices in the profession of architecture,” a field that has not traditionally employed a large number of Blacks.

When Harris, a senior, heard in mid-July that the School of Architecture might be shuttered for budget reasons, heartbreak soon gave way to disgust, he says.

“I’d put all of my time into this program,” says the Baton Rouge native. “Shutting it down felt like an insult to me.”

Days later, the school received a reprieve as university officials announced plans to work further with administrators and faculty. But the situation surrounding Southern isn’t unique in this economic climate.

Many universities are having a tough time weathering the economic storm because of state-funding shortfalls and dwindling endowments. Humanities programs at public universities like the University of Iowa and University of Minnesota have been cut. Kean University in New Jersey has proposed restructuring and merging some programs. Nevada’s top higher education official earlier this year suggested closing the state’s only medical school.

But HBCUs have taken a harder hit, experts say.

Given their smaller endowments, lower levels of alumni support and overreliance on tuition, the recession has had a significant impact on HBCUs, says Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor of higher education history.

Reducing or streamlining courses has been a painful yet unavoidable measure at some schools such as Grambling State University, which announced in August that it would merge some academic programs as part of an overall plan to save $10 million over the next two years. Dillard University is reducing its number of majors from 32 to 26. Spelman College restructured its education department last year, collaborating with Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University on an Atlanta University Center teacher-certification program.

Thinking It Through

On the up side, most institutions have not made significant changes to their academic programs, says Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard, executive director for the UNCF Institute for Capacity Building in Atlanta, which works with private HBCUs to strengthen fundraising, enrollment and retention and academic programming.

“Some have and that’s not unusual,” Pinkard says. “It’s not unusual for that to occur (even) when there are no economic imperatives.”

Schools have generally looked at cutting positions and personnel, leaving course offerings mostly intact. Institutions needing to cut usually look at discontinuing programs that are inconsistent with their long-range strategic plan only after considering other factors, such as impact on faculty and students, trends in graduation rates, operating costs and the viability of the major.

“It’s not done without deliberate and thoughtful discussions. It’s very serious business when you talk about eliminating a major or academic program,” Pinkard says. “Sometimes what appears to be a popular program, once you do the analysis, is not (viable) in terms of trends.”

When the decision is made to eliminate a course of study, the remaining students are allowed to finish the program and faculty are transferred to other departments.

Generally, low enrollment, scant market demand and too few graduates will result in the elimination of a program, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Gasman says.

“If an HBCU gets rid of a signature program,” — such as the business school at Florida A&M University — “there will be long-term consequences,” Gasman says. “However, if an HBCU eliminates a program that is actually a burden on the institution, it might make the institution more viable.”

According to media reports, Southern University officials estimated they could save nearly $1 million annually by eliminating the roughly 90-student architecture school, which graduates about nine students a year. 

The school loses tuition revenue, Harris says, but students would suffer the most because of difficulty transferring credits to other schools.

Pinkard acknowledges that sometimes the results of cutbacks are “quite painful” for students and faculty.

Spelman senior Adrianna Ebron, an aspiring social studies teacher, dropped her minor in secondary education after learning about the department’s restructuring plans. The history major has decided instead to pursue a master’s degree in education.

Though Ebron says it’s not a knock against the other schools in the Atlanta University Center, an interdisciplinary program just didn’t fit with her academic goals.

“I paid for a Spelman education. I don’t have any intentions of taking my entire minor courses somewhere else,” Ebron says. “I wasn’t confident in the program. I wasn’t confident in the changes they were making.”

Gasman recommends institutions take the “human” approach when cuts are unavoidable: slash non-essential budget elements first and eliminate programs with little enrollment and limited revenue-generating opportunities.

“If these programs include tenured faculty, these individuals should be moved to other programs, not dismissed,” she says.

The impact of these budget-induced curriculum changes on faculty has been minimal, according to the American Association of University Professors, though the organization does not keep statistics. Despite the economy, the number of faculty layoffs for financial reasons has been relatively small, but it’s continuing to grow for public institutions, officials say.

Nonetheless, a round of mass layoffs at Clark Atlanta last spring prompted censure from AAUP. Clark Atlanta canceled all physical education classes for the remainder of the semester; combined sections of some classes, including psychology; and transferred students to other courses.

“Clark Atlanta was one of the most egregious cases we had to deal with,” says Robert Kreiser, an AAUP senior program officer who served on the investigations team. “The administration failed to follow some of its own policies and treated the faculty very shabbily.” 

The investigation concluded that CAU President Carlton Brown’s reason for the mass layoffs — an enrollment emergency — was “fiction,” Kreiser says.

Faculty, Kreiser says, should be allowed significant input in determining whether there is justification for discontinuing programs and establishing the criteria for layoffs and be given clear reasons for layoffs should the need arise.

 

Change on the Horizon

Some bright spots have emerged during the crisis – reports of enrollment jumps and program and campus expansions at a few minority-serving institutions, particularly at smaller, private colleges.

Stillman College President Ernest McNealey says the Tuscaloosa, Ala., campus was committed to working through the economic downturn with minimal impact on core student experiences.

“All academic programs and course offerings have and will continue unabated,” McNealey says. “More have migrated to online delivery. Though originally a part of the strategic plan, the move has proven propitious in the current climate.”

Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., experienced an enrollment increase of about 10 percent, says President Walter Kimbrough. There have been some discussions about reviewing the curriculum, although nothing has been formalized.

Administrators want to ensure students’ interests and needs drive curriculum offerings, although that could result in lost faculty positions, Kimbrough says.

“It’s a difficult conversation here. It’s difficult at Ivy League schools,” Kimbrough says. “But for those HBCUs that struggle with enrollment, it’s imperative that they have that conversation.”

Some liberal arts programs could be in peril. “It’s hard to justify cutting business departments when a liberal arts program may only be producing one graduate a year. Fewer people want to major in theater, philosophy and music. The practical side of people is taking over,” he says.

Philander Smith is trying to meet market demand. Traditionally known for education and natural sciences, the school is now working to enhance its law and government offerings, says Kimbrough, adding that state government is the largest employer in Arkansas.

Huston-Tillotson President Larry Earvin says he “absolutely” expected to cut programs when the recession first took hold. That has not been necessary, he says, but some majors programs with low enrollment, such as mathematics and chemistry, could be in danger if enrollment dips.

Even in a worst-case scenario, he says, “courses would not be the first line. I would look to other lines, perhaps not filling some administrative jobs. You try to save money where you can so you don’t have a negative impact on the academic program.”

Jarrett Carter, executive director of The Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, a Baltimore nonprofit organization, refers to impending cuts as “the elephant in the room.”

“The reality is that some of these programs are going to be cut,” he says. “What it’s going to take is for a large, consistent level of advocacy from alumni and prominent supporters to say, ‘We need all the help we can get.’ Literally, every dollar counts.”

Harris, the Southern University student, appeals to institutions’ sense of mission and purpose. He points to the role that HBCUs play in producing large numbers of Black architects as an example.

“Look at the relevance to the programs before cutting them,” he says. “Look at the importance and not just the dollar signs.”

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