The efforts of the Kansas Board of Regents and other higher education officials to prove the value of higher education to the state’s economic health are a positive trend.
However, it’s important to remember that state universities also play a less tangible, but equally important, role in providing a liberal arts background to people who pursue a variety of careers. Liberal arts, such as philosophy, history and literature, provide context for a whole range of situations university graduates will face in their work and personal lives.
In a recent Journal-World interview, Gov.-elect Sam Brownback mentioned that Kansas universities might consider following the lead of universities in other states that are discontinuing degree programs that are graduating small numbers of students. That thought was linked to his desire to reallocate higher education resources to areas directly linked to the economy such as programs in medicine, pharmacy, veterinary medicine and aviation.
Tight funding will drive many difficult decisions in the upcoming legislative session, but how much money can the state actually save by trimming degree programs?
Earlier this week the University of Missouri made what seemed like a major announcement that it would drop 16 degree programs that have a low number of graduates. However, a detailed listing of the plan revealed that almost all of the changes involved degrees being combined or merged, not really eliminated. The changes may have had a small impact on administrative costs, but the savings on faculty salaries and other costs likely would be minimal. A good example is the merging of Spanish and French programs into a single “Romance” languages program. MU students still will be earning degrees in Spanish and/or French. They’ll just be called something else.
The reallocation of funds to areas such as pharmacy, engineering or business implies that money to support humanities faculty and courses would be reduced. Before taking such action, state officials should carefully consider what would be lost. Isn’t it a good idea for pharmacists, engineers and business people to have a background in liberal arts that lends perspective to the ethical and philosophical questions that arise in their professions? Isn’t it beneficial for people in almost any profession to have some knowledge of foreign language or literature? As Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little pointed out in a recent speech, such classes are important to maintaining the humanities “voice” that is “so key to a liberal arts education.”
It’s likely that there are places where university degree programs can be consolidated or combined. In some cases, that might save the state some money. However, before making such cuts, state and higher education officials should be sure to examine not only what the state would save, but what it would lose.