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State System’s strategy of eliminating majors reduces overall quality of public education

Credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor Credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor
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In high school, when trying to decide which college to attend, I looked at a lot of information about each school I was applying to — the size of the classes, the student-to-faculty ratio, the area around the school, and the majors that the school offered. For me, a school needed to offer a wide variety of majors because I wasn’t altogether sure what I wanted to study, and I wanted to keep my options open.

Colleges and universities that offer a diverse array of majors usually seem more appealing to students, regardless of how large or small each department might be. The state of Pennsylvania, though, seems to think that only some majors are worth having.

A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article states that the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is considering eliminating many majors at state-owned universities such as Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Lock Haven University. Majors with fewer than 30 graduates over five years will be reviewed.

This means that over 200 majors are currently being examined for potential elimination. The majors being examined at each of the state’s 14 universities vary, but they include majors in departments like chemistry, French, math, German, economics, philosophy, and mass communications, just to name a few.
This change is being proposed in order to save money and cut costs in anticipation of reduced federal and state funding for the universities. Cutting costs may be necessary, but cutting majors is not.

For students who can only afford to attend state-owned schools, this decision will likely provide huge disadvantages. Students may be forced to study things that don’t interest them; they might be forced to attend a school with fewer advantages for them, or one that isn’t such a good fit.

Universities are centers for education. Students should graduate having had a well-rounded education with courses in both the sciences and the humanities. This will provide a better perspective for them — but only if the courses they take are of high quality.

If universities are forced to eliminate certain majors, faculty members from those departments are likely to leave the university. Students will be left without qualified teachers or will be unable to take classes in certain fields, possibly blocking them from finding out what really interests them.

In addition, public universities will lose their competitive advantage over private ones. While state-owned schools are less expensive than private schools, part of their appeal depends upon the diversity they offer, and not just in terms of students.

By taking classes in areas that may be less popular, students broaden their horizons and gain the opportunity to share views with more diverse groups of people. A diversity of classes and ideas is just as important as a diversity of students, and cutting majors that don’t have huge numbers of people in them jeopardizes this diversity.

In the Post-Gazette article, Kenn Marshall, the State System spokesman, said that they were trying to help students where they needed help most, meaning financially. By cutting majors, the universities could avoid raising tuition.

Marshall assumes incorrectly that the state’s priority should be to help students financially at the expense of their educational opportunities. While it is important to keep costs for students as low as possible, sacrificing the quality of the students’ education is not the best way to do this.

Moreover, the state should not be making decisions that are better left to university officials. The state is responsible for the financial aspects of these universities, but the educational side of the university — including decisions about which majors to offer to draw more students to the institution — should be made by school administrators.

With the elimination of so many majors across the board at Pennsylvania-owned universities, it will become more difficult to attract students from out of state or from other countries, decreasing diversity at the schools.

Putting finances ahead of educational quality and diversity may also affect universities’ rankings, which are often important for students and employers, not to mention the universities themselves.

Students who would have otherwise chosen to attend a university in Pennsylvania might decide to attend a school in another state or a private institution, decreasing the amount of money schools get from tuition and fees.

While there may be fewer students to educate, many of the costs at universities are fixed. For example, the salaries of professors and staff members are unlikely to decrease with a decrease in the number of students, and campus maintenance costs will remain roughly the same as well. This puts the universities in an even worse position financially.

Even putting this aside, though, it is unclear why the state is willing to make sacrifices in higher education even as the federal government is trying to improve primary and secondary education to better prepare students for college.

The federal government has made education a priority, and the state of Pennsylvania should, too. The State System of Higher Education should look elsewhere for places to cut budgets without sacrificing the quality and diversity of education in state-owned universities.