The University of Akron, has a so-so national academic reputation (it ranked 630th of 650 schools in last years Forbes Best College rankings), but is an important school in populous Northeast Ohio, although with significantly declining enrollments in the past decade. It announced recently that it is ending 80 (!) academic programs, including such standard undergraduate majors as art history, mathematics, physics, and geography. Many programs are also being eliminated at the graduate level. Almost simultaneously, however, it announced the school aims to become a national leader in esports, also known as videogaming, and that it is going to spend $750,000 to develop an esport center second to none. Down with math and physics, up with videogames!! The Ohio Conference of the American Associations of University Professors has vehemently attacked the move.
As college enrollments shrink in America, and as public support for higher education and hence government subsidies likewise sag, many colleges find themselves in increasing financial difficulties. Moodys, the credit rating service, projects net tuition revenue rose in the last fiscal year by 2.4% at public colleges and even less at private schoolsless than the increase in the consumer price index. For the first time in years, colleges collected less tuition money per student in inflation-adjusted terms than in the previous year. This is precisely what elementary price theory predicts: when demand declines, prices fall and the quantity of the good or service consumed likewise declines.
Akron suffered from disastrous leadership for a period until recently, contributing to financial shakiness. It has shown some signs of revival, and the recent moves reflect the thinking of many university presidents. First, cut costs by reducing upper division courses in areas where there is not much student interest, retaining the beginning level survey classes. Second, make the school socially more attractive to students by incorporating what one might find at a country club designed for teenagersthings like climbing walls, lazy rivers, E-sports centers, as well as fancy dormitories and apartment complexes, meanwhile largely turning a blind eye to a good deal of hedonistic (sex, alcohol and drug-based) behavior.
Of course, Akron is not unique in trying to better use limited resources. Goucher College, a mid-quality Maryland school with a strong traditional liberal arts tradition, recently announced that it was eliminating several historically mainstay majors such as math and physics (so much for an emphasis on the STEM disciplines!) Goucher says it is not in deep financial trouble, but simply responding to reality: not many students want to major in some subjectsincluding ones in which educated persons are expected to be at least minimally knowledgeable.
The Akron/Goucher experience is being played out across the land. A few schools are actually closing, others are merging. Will Akron ultimately merge with nearby Kent State, or Eastern Michigan University join with, say, nearly Wayne State? Instead of eliminating the physics major, why not let students make what Google Maps says is a 16-minute drive to Kent State and take advanced courses there, still earning an Akron degree?
Ultimately the solution may be to allow students to take courses at any respected and accredited school without penalty or hassle. The mathematics oriented kid enrolled at Akron could take four standard survey courses there (which presumably will still be offered, as Akron has lots of engineering majors), four more advanced math courses at Kent State, and maybe five on-line from other providers, ultimately earning an Akron degree.
The experience of the University of the Arctic is relevant. That university is actually a consortium of dozens of schools located in every country in the Arctic region. Students take courses online and by video from schools in Russia, Norway, Sweden, the United States, Canada, etc., and coursework is freely transferable between all the schools. This allows students in rural areas to get instruction as if they lived in major population centers with large universities with scores of majors. Some students have taken coursework from 8-10 consortium schools. As someone who has successfully lectured to students in Qatar via Skype from my Ohio office, I dont see why we dont do more of this. Why cannot we do the same thing south of the Arctic Circle as is done north of it?
|Richard K. Vedder is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ohio University, and author of the forthcoming Independent Institute book, Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.|
American higher education is increasingly in trouble. Costs are too high, learning is too little, and the payoff to students and society is increasingly problematic. Higher education would not be in its current precarious position were it not for a mostly unsuccessful expansion of governmental involvement in the academy, especially at the federal level. This insightful account of higher education details the maladies and how they arose and what can be done to remedy them.