Chapter 11: Streamline Redundant Programs at the State Level

One of the strengths of American higher education is the diverse number of institutions, all following a slightly different path to their mission. This diversity gives students more choices and increases competition, but it also sometimes leads to expensive duplication of effort and resulting inefficiencies. Universities are run by empire-building humans who engage in mission creep, adding degrees and majors, often without fully considering the duplication of effort involved.

The level of duplication varies by state. Tennessee reported in 2009 that it had 24 doctoral programs with fewer than three graduates apiece in the period 2004 to 2009.  Similarly, a large minority of academic programs at state universities in Pennsylvania seemed to award 10 or fewer degrees annually. Do we need all of these low demand programs? Are they being maintained because of inertia, or to meet the teaching wishes of certain faculty rather than the vocational or academic needs of students?

The problem of program duplication is particularly acute at the advanced level of instruction. Ph.D. programs are extremely expensive to run: essentially very high-salaried professors intensively teach very small numbers of students. Couple this with the notion that a Ph.D. program needs to be physically located near every potential student and the prospect becomes economically unfeasible. Nationally, where there are, say, 125 Ph.D. programs in a discipline, the elimination of 50 of these programs would still allow national competition and diversity while potentially saving a good deal of resources by weeding out programs of marginal quality and limited demand.

The use of electronic means of communication can be used to allow faculty from multiple institutions to participate in joint degree programs. Merging two or three marginal programs into one of greater substance can save resources in the long run as a single integrated program is established. Sometimes joint programs can involve two schools in close proximity, and may even involve a mix of public and private schools. Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, have a joint program in German Studies.

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