What’s to be done about “low-productivity” degree programs?

The 1971 law reorganizing the University of North Carolina declared that the UNC system should “encourage an economical use of the state’s resources” to further the state’s constitutional mission of providing public higher education.

In that spirit, the Board of Governors in 1972 assigned mission statements to the UNC system schools in order to set boundaries on the types of academic programs that could be proposed and implemented.

Over the years, those mission statements have evolved and expanded, and so has the number of courses. Today, the sixteen universities in the UNC system offer roughly 1,000 bachelor’s, 700 master’s, and 200 doctoral degree programs. Since the early 1970s, on average, roughly three new programs have been created each year—with more added in recent years.

The board has a biennial review process for existing programs, but it’s not clear that the process is as rigorous as it should be or that it effectively weeds out underperforming programs.

North Carolina law states that the board “shall review the productivity of academic degree programs every two years” and “withdraw approval” of any program appearing “unproductive, excessively costly or unnecessarily duplicative” (Article 1, Chapter 116, General Statutes).

The latest system-wide study, conducted by the system’s General Administration, appeared in 2013. A key measurement in the study is “productivity,” which means that the program is “producing” an adequate (and presumably cost-effective) number of graduates each year.

A bachelor’s program is considered to be “low productive” if 1) it has awarded fewer than twenty degrees in the previous two years; 2) upper division (juniors and seniors) enrollment is less than twenty-six students; and 3) fewer than eleven degrees have been conferred in the most recent year. For master’s and doctoral programs, those numbers change, but the focus is still on degrees awarded and enrollment.

Once a program is rated as “low productive,” it is not, of course, automatically removed. A variety of factors are weighed to determine whether to keep the degree or not. They include whether a program is “central to the [university’s] institutional mission,” fills a “high societal need,” or provides “access and opportunity for underrepresented groups.”

In the latest review, 247 UNC system programs (undergraduate and graduate) were flagged as low-producing, but 200 of those were retained because the universities either had “plans to increase enrollment” or because the programs were related to the “core mission” of their respective university. Of the remaining 47 programs, 25 were flagged for a Board of Governors vote on discontinuation, and 22 were merged with other programs.

This summer, the Pope Center conducted its own analysis to find degrees within the UNC System that are “low productive.” We used the standards for productivity established by the University of Georgia, which are somewhat more stringent than UNC’s.  

The University of Georgia, under Chancellor Hank Huckaby, has made a concerted effort to reduce unnecessary programs. In 2010 and 2011, the University System of Georgia approved 71 programs and discontinued only 12. But after Huckaby, former director of the state’s budget office, became chancellor, 576 programs across the system were terminated, and only 99 have been added.

A report produced in May by the Georgia system identified another 383 low-producing programs, which are now being considered for elimination. (Many of the 576 programs eliminated in the previous three years were already inactive, so there were no faculty layoffs or cost savings.)

In our study, we focused on undergraduate programs in 2012-13. We found that if Georgia’s standards were applied to the UNC system, 210 such programs would be flagged as low-productivity (see table), compared to the 129 undergraduate programs discovered by UNC in its latest review.

Many education degrees, such as the “French Language Teacher” specialization at Appalachian State, and the “Home Economics” specialization at East Carolina University, would be on the chopping block. (There were just two graduates in the language program and just three in home economics.) Examples of other programs include the Women’s Studies degree at UNC-Greensboro, the Turf and Turf Grass Management program at NC State, and the Athletic Trainer program at UNC-Pembroke. Those programs had 5, 9, and 9 graduates, respectively.

Does closing down degree programs save money? That is far from certain at this point.  

For example, at a Board of Governors meeting earlier this year, Appalachian State University requested approval to eliminate three undergraduate and five graduate programs due to low enrollment (i.e., low productivity). When asked if that would save money, Suzanne Ortega, at the time the senior vice president for academic affairs at the UNC’s General Administration, said the faculty and resources would be “redeployed.”

I asked Appalachian State officials the same question. I was told by Susan McCracken, the school’s director of external affairs, that “resources that were previously allocated to eliminated or merged programs will be reviewed and prioritized for the most efficient and practical use as determined by the Chancellor and Provost.”

It seems logical that an improved productivity review process should more efficiently coordinate taxpayer-funded resources. For that to happen, however, there must be more teeth in the biennial reviews, and less wiggle room for universities attempting to delay the discontinuation of a struggling program.

And finally, the savings, if any, from a merger or discontinuation, must be monitored. How are faculty workloads affected? Who is accountable for how professors and resources are “redeployed”? There can be no real improvements in efficiency or accountability if universities can just “pocket the difference.”

So, while the Board of Governors has the authority to terminate low-producing programs, the de facto decision-making comes from the General Administration and the universities. They can use a variety of justifications for continuing a struggling degree program, and the evidence suggests that they may be doing just that.