It sounds like an obesity epidemic in higher education: program bloat.
But rather than some sort of elephantine curriculum, the phrase refers to the hundreds of degree programs at California’s public universities with fewer than 10 graduates in a given year—at a time when many students are turned away from more popular programs because of budget cuts.
A new study out Sunday from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni calls on the universities to eliminate low-enrollment programs or offer them jointly across campuses or online for efficiency.
“It’s just not sustainable, nor do you do your best work with so few students,” said Michael Poliakoff, the council’s policy director.
Last year, the University of California had 792 programs with fewer than 10 students receiving a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, according to the report, which relied on data reported by the universities to the federal government for 2011.
For example, five of UC’s 10 campuses graduated a total of 14 undergraduates in “geophysics and seismology” last year. At UC Berkeley, six students got a master’s in anthropology. Four got a master’s in German studies.
Similarly, California State University had 512 degree programs with low enrollment. At San Francisco State University, just one person received a master’s degree in science teaching, and one got a bachelor’s in comparative literature.
“Our recommendation is that they take a very careful look, one by one, and move toward significant reduction of under-enrolled programs,” Poliakoff said. “They can really reduce their costs.”
Program bloat is just one accusation of waste leveled at UC and CSU by the council in its 79-page report “Best Laid Plans: The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education in California.” Others include high executive pay and “poor use of campus resources,” such as adding more buildings instead of focusing more seriously on online degree programs.
The report does not estimate savings or say how many overstressed programs might benefit by cutting low-enrollment programs.
Meanwhile, the state has cut the budgets of CSU and UC each by $750 million this fiscal year, and both systems are trying to cut costs.
Last month, the CSU trustees’ finance committee discussed cutting poorly enrolled programs and appeared to reach a similar conclusion as the new report.
Phasing them out “would free up resources for higher demand or more cost-effective programs in the years ahead,” the committee concluded, according to its meeting minutes. But to do so would “require extensive review of the programs and consultation with the faculty.”
It might require “task forces to examine the costs” and requirements before anything could be done, the committee noted.
Mike Uhlenkamp, CSU’s spokesman, said it was right for the university to take its time and that basing such decisions on the numbers reported to the federal government would be inappropriate.
“There’s more to it than that,” he said.
At UC Davis, Vice Provost Patricia Turner said the federal data are “misleading” as a guideline to cut programs.
“Take physics,” she said. The data show that just four students took a bachelor’s degree in that subject last year.
“We have an engineering school that requires you to take physics, but it doesn’t require you to major in physics,” she said. “So the total number of majors is small, but the number who take physics is large.
“That’s true for languages” and other programs, Turner said, adding that Davis does cut programs when needed. Unpopular but necessary, avian sciences was absorbed into the larger animal department, and geography became part of anthropology.
As for cost cutting, she said the campus had tackled that by merging classes.
“We’re moving every class into the largest possible lecture hall,” Turner said, and sighed.