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Are liberal arts degrees in peril?

Ripon College and UW–Stevens Point recently announced changes to their liberal arts programs. Could it happen here?

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Higher education is facing some headwinds as some schools wrangle with declining enrollments, state budget cuts, tuition freezes, or a desire to simply remain relevant in relation to a future job market. Liberal arts degrees, in particular, are under scrutiny, notably among small state universities and colleges competing for students.

Arguably, “soft-skill” degrees in English, social sciences, or the arts form the foundation employers seek, such as communication expertise and critical thinking, but job-focused students may be leaning more toward vocational programs.

Perhaps it’s time to do a hard sell on soft-skill liberal arts.

Rural repackaging

On March 5, faced with declining enrollment and fiscal challenges, UW–Stevens Point proposed a plan to alter (i.e., cut or restructure) 13 liberal arts majors to focus more on “high-demand majors.” The announcement was both cheered and jeered, but it wasn’t the first time a smaller institution of higher learning had taken that stance.

“We certainly didn’t start with the idea of cutting academic programs, but that’s where we are now.” — Bernie Patterson, chancellor, UW–Stevens Point

About four years earlier, Ripon College, a private liberal arts school in Ripon, Wisconsin, announced significant changes to its program offerings. Minors were added in American studies, applied communication, and criminal justice, but the school eliminated majors in German, Greek, Latin, and museum studies.

“The financial, demographic, and societal trends we face call for bold and decisive action, especially for small, private liberal arts institutions like Ripon who rely heavily on a steady and stable stream of tuition revenue,” stated Ripon College President Zach Messitte at the time.

So, when UWSP, one of 11 regional four-year UW–System campuses, proposed its plan in March, it joined a growing list of smaller colleges struggling to make ends meet, and it raised questions as to whether we would ever see a day when majors like anthropology, the languages, history, philosophy, and social studies would become obsolete.

We spoke with UWSP Chancellor Bernie Patterson, who presented his rationale for the decision, and then asked representatives from Madison College, Edgewood College, and the UW–Madison College of Letters and Science if the same could happen here. Ray Cross, president of the UW-System, deferred comment, calling it a “campus-based discussion.”

Point’s problem: Nowhere else to cut

Patterson understands the furor created by the school’s proposal — and it is still a proposal — but is feeling somewhat boxed in. “We certainly didn’t start with the idea of cutting academic programs,” he states, “but that’s where we are now.” In fact, UWSP has been working on the matter for the past four to five years.

“We’re trying to balance the budget. We’ve had some serious budget issues and declines in enrollment and we have a budget deficit that needs to be addressed. You cannot spend more than you take in. It doesn’t work at home or the office,” Patterson notes.

In the last biennium, UWSP absorbed $6.5 million in cuts, or 25% of its state support, without faculty layoffs. It currently has a two-year, $4.5 million structural deficit caused largely by enrollment declines of roughly 1,500 students, or 13%, translating to an annual tuition loss of about $9 million. The enrollment numbers may decline again this fall, Patterson cautions.

The university attracts nearly 20% of its enrollment from its five surrounding counties, but even more importantly, about 40% stay within the five-county area after graduation. That regional interest is also why the university wants to upgrade some programs to majors.

Roughly 90% of UWSP’s budget is in personnel, begging the question about administrative cuts. “That would be great if we hadn’t already done that,” Patterson responds. “Outside of our instructional areas, we’re really just about one person deep in every area.”

Recent headlines about a bad audit are a reflection of that, he believes. The audit, conducted between July 1, 2016 and Aug. 31, 2017 by the University of Wisconsin System, resulted in an “unsatisfactory” grade, the lowest possible, citing multiple bank management issues and failures dating back to 2012, according to the Stevens Point Journal.

“That can all be traced back to skeleton crews outside of the instructional area,” Patterson claims.

UWSP’s administration costs, referred on budget lines as “institutional support,” run about half those of 100 comparable four-year universities, according to an internal study. “On average, those universities spend 13% in institutional support,” Patterson states. “We’re at 6%, so it isn’t like we haven’t tried to tighten the belt.”

His goal is to emphasize the liberal arts experience for all students while redirecting resources across all majors, as well. ”Our vision is two part,” Patterson explains. “First, to provide students with a good grounding in liberal arts across all majors; second, to prepare them for a career path that they can follow long after graduation.” If the university were to cut the 13 humanities majors as proposed, 80% of its humanities courses would continue.

The decision to offer a major or a minor in a field of study is an academic decision made by faculty members within those departments, but the Board of Regents in Madison must approve any new majors, Patterson explains. The Board is not, however, involved in the elimination of a major unless a tenured instructor loses his or her job as a result.

Meanwhile, all UWSP students are required to complete general education courses in the liberal arts and sciences, which comprise about one-third of coursework at the university, and even if the Board of Regents approves the university’s proposal to eliminate all of the programs, which Patterson believes likely won’t happen,107 majors and emphases within those majors would still be available. “There would still be plenty of choices, but it may not be as robust a list as we’ve had in the past because we can’t afford them.”

(Continued)

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