Academic folly: When taxpayers subsidize ill-considered degree programs

Each year, UNC officials pitch new degree programs to the system’s Board of Governors. More often than not, the programs are approved, even though a casual observer—especially a non-academic—might snicker or guffaw upon hearing some of their descriptions. 

For instance, at NC State University, students can enroll in a Global Luxury Management program, which is part of the business school’s Master of Global Innovation Management. As I explained here, the program includes “experiential” trips—which some might call “vacations”—to high-end fashion boutiques in Europe and New York. It almost seems to be a scam to take money from gullible recent graduates who may have realized that their undergraduate degree in fashion and textile management—a common feeder degree for the GLM program—isn’t helping them find work in that field. (Although it’s not clear that the master’s program is helping them in that regard, either).  

One of the most questionable degree offerings in North Carolina’s 16-member public university system is UNC-Chapel Hill’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Costume Production. Housed in the university’s department of dramatic art, the 3-year program is vocational in nature and is designed to “develop the skills and attitudes needed for a professional or educational career in the costume arts.”  

Applicants need not to submit Graduate Record Exam or other standardized test scores to gain admission to the costume production program, as is the case with almost all other graduate disciplines, but rather a resume, a “statement of purpose,” and PowerPoint slides displaying a portfolio of their previous work. Once admitted, students take courses such as “Beginning Draping” and “Survey of Western Costume History.”  

As they progress through the program, they attend seminars and gain hands-on experience at the Playmakers Repertory Company, a Chapel Hill-based theatre company. But while the MFA students are trained at UNC, it doesn’t look like many of them choose to do their internships in North Carolina or stay in the state upon graduation.  

In fact, a website featuring the portfolios of current students shows that all of them have chosen to spend their summers working at art festivals and for theatre groups in other states. And a rundown of top alumni indicates that the majority have gone on to work in California, New York City, Florida, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C. Only a couple of graduates mentioned have stayed in North Carolina.  

The university uses such out-of-state job placements as a major selling point. “Graduates…are employed by such diverse companies as Cirque du Soleil and the Metropolitan Opera. Many work in production shops creating costumes for Broadway, television and film, and some have launched their own businesses,” stated the university’s College of Arts and Sciences in an April 2 press release touting a new partnership with the newly-created Museum of Science Fiction in Washington, D.C. The museum now collaborates with students and faculty in Chapel Hill’s MFA program to “create high-quality replicas of iconic costumes from classic science fiction cinema for use in future displays.” 

Although the job opportunities for costume production graduates may abound in other states, one has to wonder why North Carolina taxpayers have to pick up the majority of the tab for such graduates’ educations. Tuition for the program is roughly $10,000 per year for in-state students. For the 2012-13 academic year, however, IPEDS data shows that UNC-Chapel Hill’s average per-student state appropriation was $17,633. And that may be a low estimate for students in the costume production program, as graduate programs tend to be more costly, especially at the state’s flagship.  

That means the state subsidy for the three-year program is more than $50,000 for each graduate. And they must leave the state to gain employment. This fails the main justification for a state university to have a vocational-oriented masters program: to prepare workers for the state workforce. It makes little sense for North Carolinians to subsidize the improvement of workforces in California and New York.   

A 1971 law requires UNC system officials to “encourage an economical use of the state’s resources.” It takes a healthy stretch of imagination to believe that UNC-Chapel Hill’s costume production program is “an economical use” of resources.  

Just because a program can be offered doesn’t mean that it should be offered, especially if it’s not serving the citizens of North Carolina. Unfortunately, costume design programs are offered at other universities in the state. NC A&T has a theatre arts program with a theatre technology concentration that specializes in costume design. Western Carolina University has a BFA in theatre with a costume design concentration. UNC-Asheville, UNC-Wilmington, and UNC-Greensboro have costume-related programs, too.  

Of the programs with a costume emphasis, the UNC School of the Arts’ undergraduate and graduate costume design and technology programs may make the most sense, given the art school’s mission and, presumably, comparative advantage in that field. But even that assumption should be examined. North Carolina law requires the UNC system’s Board of Governors to review all academic programs every two years and to “withdraw approval” if a program appears “unproductive, excessively costly or unnecessarily duplicative.” The board should adhere to the intent of the law and closely examine UNC-Chapel Hill’s and other schools’ costume design programs. If they examine them objectively, they will probably find that most, if not all, of such programs should be on the chopping block.  

History shows, however, that many programs that should be eliminated are kept in place because university officials are permitted exceptions—if a program is “central to the [university’s] institutional mission” or if it fills a “societal need.” In other words, once a program is in place, it’s hard to get rid of it.

That’s why the front-end of this process—when programs are originally approved by the Board of Governors—is so important. In that process, a university proposing a degree is supposed to show that the program relates to the “distinctiveness of the campus and the mission of the campus” and that there is sufficient “demand for the program in the locality, region, or State as a whole.” Based on just those two criteria (there are twelve in all), it’s difficult to understand why the costume-related programs (with the possible exception for the one at the School of the Arts) were ever approved.

But the fact that such programs get approved and continue to exist does not mean that North Carolina taxpayers have to subsidize them forever. In fact, such problems are easily fixed—if UNC officials or state legislators have the will to do what’s right. And doing so can come in handy if places to painlessly cut the budget are needed.