News: CJ Exclusives

‘Low-Productivity’ Degree Programs At UNC Hard To End

Even programs that are eliminated may not save money

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 system’s Board of Governors assigned mission statements to system universities setting boundaries on the types of academic programs that can be implemented on individual campuses.

Today, the 16 universities in the UNC system offer roughly 1,000 bachelor’s, 700 master’s, and 200 doctoral degree 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.”

The latest systemwide study, conducted by the system’s General Administration, appeared in 2013. A key measurement is “productivity,” which means that a 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 20 degrees in the previous two years; 2) upper division (juniors and seniors) enrollment is less than 26 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 automatically removed. Several 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.

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. (Many of the 576 programs were 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 had been applied to the UNC system, 210 programs would be flagged, compared to the 129 undergraduate programs discovered by UNC in its latest review.

But 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 eight programs due to low enrollment. When asked if that would save money, Suzanne Ortega, at the time the senior vice president for academic affairs at UNC’s General Administration, said the faculty and resources would be “redeployed.”

I asked Appalachian State officials the same question. Susan McCracken, the school’s director of external affairs, replied, “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.”

So, while the Board of Governors has the authority to terminate low-producing programs, the de facto decision making comes from 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.

Jesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.