Toward Effective Program Reviews

Tomorrow’s higher-ed cutbacks should consider more than just economics.

Vision matters in bad times as well as good. When applications and enrollments are high, tuition rolling in, and student loans plentiful, colleges and universities build programs and hire personnel as if the good times will never end. Times of contraction, however, force decisionmakers to prioritize their programs and trim those that are luxuries or that are inconsistent with the academic enterprise.

Contraction is hitting higher education. More colleges, especially private colleges, are closing each year. Budget cuts and program review are the future for many, if not most, American colleges and universities (and K-12 school systems). In recent years, institutions—including Penn State, West Virginia University, UNC Greensboro, University of Nebraska Kearney, Youngstown State, University of New Hampshire, and many others—announced program and staffing cuts. More are coming, too, as program-prioritization budget models are implemented across academe.

A lower percentage of fewer students, with cratering consumer confidence, means a lot fewer enrollees.Shrinking enrollments traceable to fewer students attending higher education and the sharp reduction in the absolute number of potential students make program evaluation inevitable. Enrollments crested at 20.5 million students in 2011 and have shrunk by over 2 million students since. The overall enrollment rate among 18-to-24-year-olds has dipped from a high of 41 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2021, though the latter may have rebounded to 39 percent since.

More substantial is the demographic cliff, since there will simply be fewer people of college age in the country. According to projections, there will be 3.5 million fewer high-school graduates in 2037 than in 2025. Demographers predict an average 15-percent decline in the number of students attending higher ed every four years. Nor will it do to project from today’s reality to tomorrow’s decline. Enrollment shrinkage could be even worse, since confidence in higher education is down sharply, with majorities now expressing only some or very little confidence in higher education and more people doubting the value of degrees. A lower percentage of fewer students, with cratering consumer confidence, means a lot fewer enrollees.

State legislatures and boards of governors should be considering policies for guided downsizing and reorganizing. Fortune has presented the opportunity for new leaders to introduce new modes and orders and to eliminate older modes and orders as shrinkage becomes the rule.

If left unguided, most administrators in higher education will use simple economic calculi alone to guide program evaluation and cuts. A budgetary problem seems to demand a budgetary solution, after all. West Virginia University (WVU), for instance, recently cut seven bachelor’s degrees, including those in art history, biometric systems engineering, environmental and community planning, jazz studies, several languages, and tourism. Several not-unrelated master’s and doctoral programs were also cut. All cuts, as WVU’s president Gordon Gee indicated, were driven by “the data,” as gleaned from an “Academic Program Portfolio Review,” which, as a best practice in the higher-education industry, centered on student-demand metrics, financial performance at the department level, and predictions about market demand for majors. Similar corporate approaches have been undertaken at most other schools, leading to slightly different results in their given markets. (See Greensboro and Kearney.)

Notably, for instance, at WVU, sociology, anthropology, history, and journalism did not even undergo program review, and “women’s and gender studies” survived it (albeit consolidated under the sociology department). “Women’s, gender and sexuality studies” survived at Greensboro, as did a similar minor at Kearney.

Data-driven program reviews fail to consider corrupt professional standards as formal criteria.Data-driven program reviews face a fundamental limitation. They fail to consider corrupt and corrupting professional standards as formal program-review criteria. None of these program reviews use the opportunity to revisit a deep, abiding vision of the university, where the goals of workforce education, genuine civic education, genuine liberal education, advanced research, and professional certification all find a home.

Disciplines that no longer fulfill these aspects of the mission—or that never did fulfill them—should be subject to program review on that basis alone.

Corporate types will claim that evaluating professional standards is “subjective.” What criteria should be adopted in the evaluation of professional standards? One answer is a board of external agents, not unlike the old tariff commissions, that would analyze departmental mission statements, course offerings, actual syllabi, required readings, and professional standards for each area of study. Disciplines that have leftist ideology sown into their professional standards and manifest in their presentation at a particular campus would be subject to heightened program review.

As I have written, national accreditors for departments of social work and national associations like the National Council for Black Studies, the National Women’s Studies Association, and the American Sociological Association are tip-offs to what is going on in particular disciplines. As others have catalogued in the case of sociology, when national meeting topics, leading disciplinary journals, and book-prize winners all reflect a leftist monoculture, perhaps the discipline’s place in the university should no longer be secure. Religion departments also have specific, leftist political commitments sown into the nature of their disciplines, as have history, English, anthropology, and queer-studies departments.

It would also be necessary for such a board of review to see if and how these political commitments descend into a particular institution’s department. An individual women’s-studies department would have to show marks of the activism inherent in the national movement, just as an institution’s sociology department would have to show whether it manifests the leftist ideology that defines much of the discipline at the national level. A board would study the department’s mission statement, survey its academic offerings, and analyze its syllabi and required readings. When more than three-quarters of faculty focus more than three-quarters of their research on political activism and leftist ideology, or when the same proportion marks course syllabi, a department could lose program-review points just as weighted as a lack of student interest.

Politicized disciplines should be designated as such and earn demerits in a program evaluation.Elsewhere, I argued that all departments with an ideological bent should be sent into a College of Grievance Studies (COGS), where they would have their own general education and internally selected leaders, filled with zeal for their cause. They could have their own tuition schedule and tenure policies. They could be housed in the most modern-looking building on campus. They could require DEI statements, limit free speech, shout down speakers, practice racial preferences openly, and have totally open enrollment. Departments in COGS could be allowed simply to become their best selves as they understand that. Let the market reward or punish them as they deserve.

Program review creates another possibility. Politicized disciplines could be designated as such and earn demerits in the program evaluation. Certainly, economic factors must have some weight in program evaluation, but cuts must also serve a sustainable vision of higher education in America. At least a third of all program-evaluation points should be awarded on the basis of contributions to the overall academic enterprise at the university.

Legislatures should set forward the criteria for program review in statute and regulation and preemptively appoint boards of review to evaluate professional standards for individual disciplines. Then, when cratering enrollments demand program evaluation at state schools, an infrastructure will exist to conduct important analyses. Never let a good crisis go to waste, as Winston Churchill asserted during the dark days of World War II.

Scott Yenor is senior director of state coalitions for the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University.