Eliminating STEM majors in the name of efficiency?

Missouri State University

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Thanks for bearing with me during a little hiatus on this blog. I’ll be back into semiregular posting habits starting now.

Problem: There’s not enough qualified candidates with degrees in the STEM disciplines for the STEM jobs that are coming on the horizon, particularly those that require US citizenship such as government jobs. So you would think that the solution would be to try to drum up more students to go into, and stay in, those disciplines. But Missouri State University has chosen to take a different track: Start eliminating STEM majors because they are “low producing programs”. From the article:

Gov. Jay Nixon directed the agency to review academic programs that do not appear to meet the Coordinating Board for Higher Education’s productivity criteria.

“Low-producing programs” are defined by CBHE policy as those producing fewer than 10 graduates per year at the baccalaureate level, five majors per year at the master’s degree level, and three majors per year at the doctoral degree level, calculated over a three-year average.

As a result of the program review, which began in September 2010, colleges and universities will terminate a total of 119 programs, or 20 percent of all programs identified for review. Institutions will move 24 programs to inactive status, and 175 programs were flagged for follow-up review in three years.

The four-year institutions will end 73 degree programs, and two-year institutions will end 46 programs. The majors will be phased out over time so students currently enrolled in the degree programs can graduate.

Among the majors being eliminated at MSU are Emerging Technologies Management, Engineering Physics, Technology Education, and the master’s program in Engineering Management. This is all being done in the name of “efficiency”.

I think you could make an argument that while these degree programs are not “core” STEM subjects like Chemistry or Engineering, they are still valuable as second-level STEM subjects that can, if cultivated, produce trained professionals who either produce the STEM practitioners of the future (in the case of Technology Education) or create work environments in which STEM practitioners can do their best work (in the case of the management majors). Therefore these programs have value for the STEM community, and they could be especially good landing spots for university students who like science and technology but also like the business side of things and would rather not double-major. The elimination of the Technology Education major is particularly painful, because this is an area of extreme need in American high schools today.

So if you’ve got these majors that are of clear value to society, and that society suffers from not enough people going into these disciplines, exactly how are we helping ourselves by eliminating the programs? Unless there is some plan in place to grow these programs in a different and more efficient format (say, as an academic minor or certification program) then wouldn’t it make more sense to try to ramp up recruitment efforts first?

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Technology

7 responses to “Eliminating STEM majors in the name of efficiency?

  1. Chris

    The really silly thing is that these are very low-cost, or free program. Engineering Physics (which happens to be my undergraduate degree) is probably not much more than a list of requirements combining various pathways through the physics and engineering curricula. The faculty are probably all housed in other departments.

  2. I have to wonder if this is just the beginning of a new shoot-self-in-foot trend that is being driven by financial constraints. If it’s not generating enough revenue, it’s suddenly an obvious drain on limited budgets. What’s next in line for the we-can’t-afford-it chopping block? Physics?

  3. @Chris: That’s what I don’t get either. Probably if you have a physics department and an engineering department, which Missouri State does have, then the marginal cost of having an Engineering Physics major is basically zero. So why cut it? Same thing for the management majors, which are probably just courses cobbled together from STEM subjects and business courses. The only exception I could see is the Tech Ed major, which probably has to conform to some Missouri state standard, which could get expensive.

    @Susan: Lord help us if we should ever start equating “not generating revenue” with “losing revenue”! And I should say, my college eliminated the Physics major over a decade ago basically because of low enrollments, so anything’s possible.

  4. As long as additional cost is zero, I agree with you.

    Other than that, they are probably right. 10/5 graduates per year is a ridiculously low number; if you have to employ even only a handful of people, that is an insane ratio. Money per student should (modulo material/lab expenses) be somewhat homogenous.

    Also, maintaining majors costs money. Adapting course lists, study plans, regulations, you name it.

    • I would disagree that there is any significant administrative cost in maintaining a major. All the things you listed do take time but would be considered part of the workload already in place for faculty and department chairs. Unless you had a bunch of majors in the same department, there’s really no additional cost, and all the programs I listed here appear to be in different departments.

      And still, if the majors are of clear value to the university and to society, shouldn’t there be some sort of effort to ramp up recruitment/retention efforts first before putting them on the chopping block? Maybe there was, but the article didn’t say so and even implied that there was no such effort.

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  6. Chuck jones

    I teach math at the high school level and am sponsor of our Science Olympiad team. What you report about discontinuing STEM majors is a sa truth. It reminds me of the many budget cuts in my school system’s history where it was the arts that were cut.
    However, I’m worried that much of our lack of emphasis in science, technology, engineering, and math may be due in part to our extreme focus on just math and English on standardized tests. We (as a society) have become so focused that education is not allowed to hit all subjects in a way that brings out a well-rounded student, one that is a good problem solver.
    In addition, our society does not value hard work and perseverance. These are traits that are necessary in STEM majors.