If you peruse the list of the 46 UNC System degree programs that are on the chopping block, half contain the word "education."
As a former university administrator, I see the problem as not strictly political, but also structural. The way the review process is conducted—and how "low-productivity" is defined—penalizes some students seeking certain teaching and specialty degrees as well as those attending smaller campuses.
UNC-Greensboro, which originated as the state teacher's college for women, discontinued six education degrees, the most of any campus. UNC-Greensboro Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Dana Dunn clarified that five of these jeopardized programs are secondary education degrees within departments of biology, math and economics—not within the School of Education. Students within these science programs can still pursue a concentration—but not a degree— in secondary education.
Many biology students pursue that course of study as preparation for medical and graduate schools. Graduates with bachelor's degrees in the sciences can also expect to command higher salaries than those entering the teaching field. The median annual salary for applied mathematicians is $59,000, according to a 2013 UNC Destination Survey of graduates with bachelor's degrees. (The Best Schools also has a list of science and math salaries.) in North Carolina, first-year teachers can expect to earn about $30,000 a year.
"As much as we need highly talented teachers in STEM, the current context of opportunities to graduates in those disciplines are more rewarding financially," Dunn says.
The salary disparity—and the degree cuts—can result in a shortage of qualified STEM teachers.
According to a 2013 article by the National Math and Science Initiative, more than two-thirds of students in fifth through eighth grades are being taught by teachers without math degrees or certification. In the sciences, that figure rises to 93 percent. High schools fare poorly as well: 61 percent of students are being taught by teachers without chemistry degrees or certification; for biology, it is 45 percent.
"Yes, we need more STEM graduates," says Dunn, who spent 27 years at the University of Texas Arlington Campus. Last year, the Houston school district actively recruited for North Carolina teachers with the promise of a $20,000 increase over starting annual salaries. "But failing to produce enough teachers is not in the long-term best interest of the state."
Discontinuing teacher education programs could be perceived as a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I think that's an inaccurate characterization," Dunn says. "You need a minimally acceptable level of enrollment in these times of fiscal constraint. The real challenge is 'How can we make teaching more attractive?'"
But administrative finagling with numbers and the appearance of academic efficiency doesn't solve the state's real secondary education problem.
"Declining enrollment and the challenges are a bit like the canary in a coal mine and projects what lies ahead if we become unattractive to the talented young people in the state," says UNCG's Dunn. "While it takes awhile to reach the crisis point, the message is that we need to be focused on the issue now so that teaching is again the sought-after profession it once was."
A 1993 state law tasked the politically appointed UNC Board of Governors with developing criteria for evaluating the productivity of degree programs at the system's 17 campuses. Those evaluations began in 1995.
But the actual review process begins with the UNC System General Administration. Conducted every two years, the review is intended to increase efficiency by culling programs that attract and graduate few students.
The trigger for identifying these low-productivity programs is automatic, based on prescribed thresholds. At the bachelor's level, for example, underperforming programs are defined as those awarding fewer than 20 degrees over the last two years, with fewer than 26 enrolled juniors and seniors, or having awarded fewer than 11 degrees in the most recent year.
These are stringent goals, especially for the smaller campuses, where this year, a disproportionate share of degree programs are being eliminated. At UNC campuses with more than 15,000 students the degree elimination rate was less than half of that at campuses with fewer than 15,000.
UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, is discontinuing just one (B.S. in Human Biology), raising the question of whether the state's flagship campus garners favor.
"While it takes awhile to reach the crisis point, the message is that we need to be focused on the issue now so that teaching is again the sought-after profession it once was."
Even larger universities are seeing degree programs being eliminated or consolidated.
N.C. State's interdisciplinary degree programs in Africana Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, and a self-designed degree are all being terminated after having been tagged as low-performing programs two years ago.
Blair Kelley, assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs, says that, like N.C. Central University's jazz studies degree, these three areas will be reclassified as major concentrations within a single interdisciplinary degree program.
"It's similar to the languages here at State: Foreign Languages and Literature is technically now a single major, but of course, students still study each language separately and think of themselves as Spanish or French majors," Kelley says.
This is silly. Degree semantics are changing only to meet a 20-year-old numerical definition of a degree, when in fact students are pursuing the same courses. And if you're hiring a graduate for foreign language expertise, a degree in foreign languages and literature has a different meaning than one in just Spanish or French.
Moreover, faculty hired in the UNC system have to document their own degrees and be deemed appropriately trained to teach in a given subject area. (I had to supply my undergraduate transcript when hired as a NCCU faculty member two decades after I got my degree.)
So who is really being served by the new nomenclature, especially if the new degree names complicate graduates' employment prospects?
"Failing to produce enough teachers is not in the long-term best interest of the state."
These questions, and others, are prompting a review of the review process. Junius Gonzales, senior vice president for academic affairs for the UNC system, analyzed program threshold levels and the frequency of reviews. He found that compared to the 21 states for which similar information is readily available, North Carolina has among the strictest productivity thresholds.
But the review process allows for some flexibility and, therefore, the potential for some subjectivity. Gonzales notes that the numerical triggers for low productivity designation don't automatically kill a program. In fact, a total of 221 programs were classified as low-productivity in the recent review, but 75 percent were maintained.
So while the triggers are automatic, the UNC System administration warns academic leadership of each campus about low productivity about nine months before the BOG takes action. Campus leadership can respond with an action plan: defend retaining the program, make modifications to enhance enrollment and graduation, or combine or discontinue it.
In addition, the campuses have two more opportunities to justify their programs before the BOG votes. UNC System staff members help each campus analyze and discuss their responses and plans. Then system senior administrators meet with each of the 16 chief academic officers, focusing on programs that have been classified as low productivity for more than a two-year cycle. Some programs discontinued this year have been under discussion for three cycles—six years.
And some highly regarded signature programs that attract only specialty interest, such as poultry science at N.C. State, are retained for their distinction within the UNC system.
Subsequent discussions will focus on whether UNC system reviews should be held every three, even five years. The current two-year cycle leaves institutions with only one academic year to make meaningful inroads on student recruitment and to ensure that existing students graduate.
And the cost of these reviews for each campus and the overall system—which has not yet been calculated—will also be scrutinized.
"I can't emphasize enough that in these times of severe budget constraints that the costs of review don't offset the savings derived from consolidation," says UNC-Greensboro's Dunn. "There can certainly be cost savings but not as much as you might think."
David J. Kroll is a freelance science, medicine, and education writer in Durham, and was an NCCU professor.