From music to engineering physics, Regents reviewing the future of 11 KU degree programs that aren’t meeting key metrics

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023 with the Campanile in the foreground.

For faculty, staff and students in nearly a dozen degree programs at KU, the summer season may be stressful rather than slow.

Over the next several weeks, the Kansas Board of Regents is expected to make decisions on whether to merge or phase out 11 degree programs at the University of Kansas, each of which is suffering from some combination of low degree numbers, low wages, or low job prospects in the region.

Everybody from music majors to engineering physicists will have something at stake. Both of those degree programs are on the list of possible cuts, as are astronomy, atmospheric sciences, African studies, and a pair of religion programs, among others.

If the Regents decide to phase out a program, that typically is a process that takes several years. Students who are enrolled in the program generally are allowed to finish their degrees, although universities often shut down new enrollment in the degree programs.

The idea of the Regents reviewing degree programs for possible elimination is not new, but the process seems to have picked up urgency among the Regents, as the entire higher education industry prepares for an expected downturn in overall enrollment numbers due to smaller high school classes that will graduate in the coming years.

“The current reality is that we have fewer students, and some might say more programs in our inventory,” Regent Cynthia Lane said at a recent meeting of the Regents’ Academic Affairs Committee, which she chairs. “There is a sense across the nation that higher education investment may not be worth it. I think we have a counter-narrative, a different story to be told.”

However, Lane said for that story to resonate, universities must do all that they can to make sure that degree programs are meeting key metrics and “frankly, that our degrees offer our students the promise that higher education is worth the investment.”

Lane, who spoke about the subject both at an April 30 meeting of the Academic Affairs committee and in a brief interview with the Journal-World in mid-May, will play a key role in the program review process. Her Academic Affairs committee will hold a key meeting on Tuesday, where committee members are expected to issue recommendations on whether to merge, phase out or require action plans for 31 degree programs at KU and the other five Regents institutions — Kansas State, Wichita State, Pittsburg State, Emporia State and Fort Hays State.

KU leaders have submitted plans for all 11 of the KU programs up for discussion. The KU group, led by Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, is not recommending that any degree programs be phased out. It is recommending one program be merged with another one — the bachelor of secondary education in physical education plus would be merged into a more general secondary education degree. For the remaining 10 programs, KU is recommending that they be placed on “action programs,” which would give those programs three years to implement strategies to begin including key metrics.

The action plan process is another sign of the seriousness with which the Regents are viewing the need for universities to narrow their degree programs. Universities used to have eight years to implement an action plan. Now, it is down to three years.

“One of the very first things when I became a Regent three years ago that members started talking about is, we have too many programs,” Lane said. “We are always adding programs but we don’t seem to be sunsetting or removing any.”

Lane said she has learned that perception might be false because Regents have not always been fully aware of the work that universities are doing on their own to narrow programs. KU, for example, has cut 44 degree programs since 2021. Bichelmeyer told Regents that those cuts have resulted in a little more than $5 million per year in payroll savings as KU used a voluntary separation buyout program as it undertook the course changes. Many were in the arts and humanities and faced opposition from faculty leaders, as the Journal-World reported at the time.

Bichelmeyer said she and other leaders don’t favor cuts to the 11 programs that the Board of Regents have mandated for review. She said the metrics used by the Regents don’t always capture the importance the degree programs have to KU’s broader mission of being a world-class research institution.

She said it is important to keep some degree programs in their current structure because to merge them with other programs, or eliminate their teaching altogether, would have impacts on the often collaborative work that researchers do.

“We group our programs on the specialized knowledge of the researchers who come in as faculty and who they need to engage with to advance the knowledge base,” Bichelmeyer said in the April 30 committee meeting where KU presented data and plans to the Regents committee.

Bichelmeyer said it sometimes is important for degree programs to be narrower rather than broader to produce the best research outcomes.

“Some of that has to do with the nature of the research and the uniqueness of the research,” she said. “Do you lose the excellence if you lose the focus?”

All 31 of the degree programs up for review by Regents are on the list because they failed to meet minimum standards in at least two of the four benchmarks used by the Regents — student demand, degree production, talent pipeline, and student return on investment. The last two particularly look at how many students remain in the region after graduation and are employed in a field related to their degree, and how much they are earning in wages in that degree.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Academic Affairs Committee will not be the final action for degree review. Rather, the committee will craft a set of recommendations for the entire Board of Regents to consider at a future meeting. The earliest the full board would review the recommendations would be June 20.

Here’s a look at the 11 KU programs that are up for review, including key statistics and other items that KU leaders presented for the Regents to consider.

• African Studies (Bachelor of General Studies/Arts in African & African-American Studies): The program has an average of 10.25 junior- and senior-level students major in the degree each year. It has produced 4.25 degrees per year over the last four years. Just under 48% of of graduates are employed in the region within one year of graduation. The median salary for graduates is $39,959 five years after graduation. Of the four metrics, only the salary number met the Regents benchmarks.

KU’s strategy for improvement includes boosting employer connections with Black-owned businesses and more targeted recruiting of potential students. Regents were told that the program produces a significant amount of nationally recognized research, despite the program’s size.

• American Studies (Bachelor of General Studies/Arts in American Studies): 19.25 majors, 5.75 degrees, 55% employed in region, $46,480 median wage. The numbers of majors and degrees both fell short of Regents benchmarks.

Strategies include changes to the curriculum that would make it easier for university students to add the degree as a second major.

• Physical Education Teaching & Coaching (Bachelor of Secondary Ed In Physical Ed Plus): 21.25 majors, 8.25 degrees, 72% employed in region, $62,121 median wage. The numbers of majors and degrees both fell short of Regents benchmarks.

KU is proposing to merge the degree with the B.S.E. in Secondary Education. The merger would save about $40,000 a year in department expenses, KU estimated.

• International/Globalization Studies (Bachelor of Arts in Global International Studies): 109.25 majors, 34.25 degrees, 34% employed in region, $35,903 median wage. The employment and wage figures both fell short of Regents benchmarks.

Strategies include more industry partnerships and internship opportunities.

• Religious Studies (Bachelor of General Studies/Arts in Religious Studies): 15.75 majors, 7.25 degrees, 56% employed in region, $48,777 median wage. The numbers of majors and degrees both fell short of Regents benchmarks.

Strategies include curriculum changes that will include more classes that delve into ethical, social and religious issues encountered within professions such as law, medicine, media and business, which may help the degree become more popular with students seeking a double major.

• Jewish Studies (Bachelor of Arts in Jewish Studies): 7.5 majors, 3.5 degrees, 26% employed in region. Salary information was not disclosed due to small statistical size. The number of majors, degrees and employment all failed to meet Regents benchmarks.

Strategies include changes to the curriculum that no longer require students to complete intermediate-level Hebrew or Yiddish classes. Other strategies include the creation of a new event that connects students in the program with Jewish professional organizations in Lawrence, Olathe and Overland Park.

• Astronomy (Bachelor of Arts/Science in Astronomy): 24.5 majors, 4.75 degrees, 40% employed in region. Salary data wasn’t shared. None of the categories met Regents benchmarks, although the number of majors fell just short of the benchmark of 25 students.

This is a degree that KU says is hampered by the Regents benchmarks. To work in the astronomy field generally requires advanced degrees, and thus many students aren’t in the workforce full time within a year of receiving their undergraduate degrees. KU leaders also noted that the program is important to the overall region. The KU astronomy degree is the only such undergraduate degree program within a 500-mile radius, and KU and Baylor are the only universities that offer the degree program in the Big 12.

• Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology (Bachelor of Science in Atmospheric Science): 39.5 majors, 9.75 degrees, 38% employed in region, $44,891 median wage. The degree production and employment numbers did not meet the benchmarks.

Strategies include curriculum adjustments designed to help students with some of the higher-level math classes required for the degree, and also the creation of greater industry partnerships. University leaders told Regents that KU offers the only degree program in the state that meets all the federal requirements to become a meteorologist.

• Geography (Bachelor of General Studies/Arts/Science Geography): 16.25 majors, 6.25 degrees, 59% employed in region, $46,649 median wage. The major and degree numbers did not meet the benchmarks.

Strategies include a redesign of the curriculum that focuses on the geography skills businesses are most in need of — expertise in GIS systems was cited — and how the degree program can work with other majors on providing those skills to those professions.

• Music (Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Fine Arts/Arts in Music): 74.75 majors, 22.25 degrees, 41% employed in region, $36,400 median wage. The employment and wage numbers did not meet the benchmarks.

KU said this degree is not well measured by the Regents metrics. Many undergraduates seek graduate education, and many music degree graduates work in the “gig” economy as freelancers and performers. U.S. Labor Department wage data does not do a good job of capturing those wages, thus likely negatively skewing the median wage data for the KU degree.

• Engineering Physics (Bachelor of Science in Engineering): 28.25 majors, 6.25 degrees, 50% employed in region, wage data not disclosed. The degrees and employment figures did not meet the benchmarks.

Strategies include additional student recruitment events, job fairs and employer connections. KU told the Regents that KU’s engineering physics program is one of the two oldest such programs in the nation. KU is tied with the University of Maine for having the longest continuously accredited engineering physics program in the nation.


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