New report finds 177 degree programs at state universities that need review as Regents look for ways to reduce degree duplication

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The Kansas Union on the University of Kansas campus is pictured on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

If you want to get an undergraduate degree in physics, there is no shortage of options in Kansas.

All six of the state’s public universities offer an undergraduate degree in physics, despite data showing that enrollment in the programs is below average at all six schools, and that few physics graduates end up being employed in Kansas or Missouri.

While every university is likely to keep offering some physics classes for the foreseeable future, the new data is raising the question of whether all six of the Regents universities ought to keep offering a full physics degree.

But, as a physicist could tell you, once that ball gets rolling, it likely will keep rolling.

Members of the Kansas Board of Regents on Thursday received a draft report showing that the number of degree programs that are struggling and duplicated at multiple state universities goes far beyond the field of physics.

In all, 177 degree programs fall into a category of needing monitoring and review, a step that could be a precursor to eliminating those programs, a consulting firm hired by the Regents said Thursday.

The RPK Group conducts studies like this for university systems across the country, but it said the large number of duplicate degree programs in Kansas did stand out when compared to other systems the company has studied.

“The surprise that we had was the level of duplication that we saw in the data,” Mike Daly, a consultant with the RPK Group, told the Regents.

Regents and consultants, though, were quick to say that the new report doesn’t mean hundreds of degree programs are likely to be eliminated at the six Regents schools — the University of Kansas, Kansas State, Wichita State, Emporia State, Fort Hays State and Pittsburg State.

Elimination of degree programs is often a controversial process on university campuses, and a group of KU employees who are working to form a union for faculty members and instructors cited a lack of faculty input into major decisions about academic programs as one of the reasons organizers are seeking to form a union.

Several KU faculty members in February expressed concern about KU’s process to eliminate approximately 40 degree programs, including several in the arts and humanities. At the time, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said the cuts were needed, in part, because maintaining programs that “chronically have had very, very few students in them is not a very efficient way to run a business.”

Faculty leaders at the time countered that such data-driven considerations are important but there are reasons that go beyond economics that dictate why a university should offer certain life-enriching degree programs.

The RPK Group worked with KU as it went through the degree elimination process, and the Board of Regents hired the firm to take a broader look at how the entire Regents system could become more efficient.

On Thursday, Regents heard from several university leaders urging that a large amount of context be considered before Regents start providing direction to scale back the number of degree programs offered in the system.

KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer said there are examples where a school like KU may be offering a specialized type of physics degree that may look like a duplication if the issue isn’t carefully studied. She said such specialized degree programs often are critical to research programs, which can bring millions of dollars to the university.

“We may not have the greatest enrollment in that type of program, but we desperately need that program for research,” she said.

Daly, the RPK consultant, said there are a lot of granular details that universities and the Regents would need to consider before deciding to eliminate a program. He said that’s one reason why the RPK report is not recommending elimination of specific programs. Instead, he said the report is intended to be “informative and raise awareness.”

On that front, the report does list 73 bachelor’s degree programs that should either be reviewed or optimized because the degrees are offered by at least four Regents universities. Those 73 degree programs were in 13 disciplines: chemistry; drama/theater arts; English and literature; fine/studio arts; earth/geosciences; history; general studies; linguistics; mathematics; music; philosophy; physics; and sociology.

The report also listed 44 master’s degree programs that should either be reviewed or optimized because they are offered by at least four Regents universities. Those degrees were in nine disciplines: biology; chemistry; communication and media studies; English and literature; fine/studio arts; history; mathematics; physics; and nursing.

Regents did not take any action at Thursday’s meeting. Instead, RPK Group is expected to provide a more formal report to the Regents at their December meeting. RPK also will be back for the Regents’ January meeting to present a second part of their research, which looks at possible workload requirements for faculty.


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