Kansas Regents get first look at RPK report on duplicate programs

The number of programs and majors offered at Kansas’ six state universities could shrink as the Kansas Board of Regents seeks to address duplicate programs, particularly those with low enrollments.

The Regents heard a final report from rpk GROUP, a university structure consultant, on Wednesday. The board had struck a deal with the firm earlier this year to overhaul the way the Regents analyze and approve programs at each of the state universities.

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Currently, the Board is taking an institutional-level approach to analyzing the success and viability of each undergraduate and graduate program, rather than looking at programs from a statewide perspective.

“We compete with each other at our six-year universities, but we’re also a system, so we have to figure out how we complement each other and how we strengthen each other,” Regents Chair Jon Rolph told The Capital-Journal. “The market is shifting, and there are programs that might have interested people 30 years ago that don’t today. There are things that didn’t even exist 30 years ago.

“It’s about trying to be responsive and I think people can understand that spirit of responsibility from the board.”

rpk GROUP: More than a quarter of Kansas college programs require review

In his presentation to the Board of Directors, Mike Daly of rpk GROUP emphasized that the Advisor’s review of the university’s collective academic portfolio to date should not be interpreted as a recommendation to cut any particular programme.

“It’s a consideration of how to think about the overall health and energy of an academic portfolio across six very different and diverse institutions and understand where the right people need to focus their attention,” Daly said.

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rpk GROUP’s analysis of Kansas universities’ programs and enrollments between 2017 and 2021 found that the universities offered 688 programs at six institutions with 333 unique programs.

Of the 688 total programs, rpk GROUP said, only 110, or 16%, showed above-average enrollment, program growth and number of degrees achieved, and the company recommends that those programs be “maintained.” Most of the other programs — 401 overall, or 58% — meanwhile, fell within the definition of the group of programs that should be “tweaked” or adjusted to achieve better enrollment and graduation rates.

However, 177 programs, or 26%, showed the need for “review and monitoring,” Daly said, and according to the company’s current recommendation, Regents should review those programs — especially those that are duplicated across multiple universities — more comprehensively by developing clear programs and firm expectations for improvements in employee enrollment and the production of degrees.

More:Kansas colleges and universities continue to face a downward spiral in enrollment — with few exceptions

The majority of programs in the Review and Monitoring category were programs in the Arts, Sciences and Humanities, with subjects such as Chemistry, Drama, English, History, Mathematics, Music and Physics being highlighted.

Though several dozen Kansas programs fit this category, Daly said most universities across the U.S. are seeing similar patterns of low-enrollment programs or majors, with the problem only getting worse as enrollments continue to decline statewide.

Dual programs may be required at Kansas state universities

Prior to the rpk GROUP presentation, Nate Brunsell, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and President of the Faculty Senate at the University of Kansas, spoke on behalf of the faculty presidents of the six state universities and urged the Regents to consider the value of each program, even if institutions are duplicated, as they reviewed the advisor’s recommendations.

“Programmatic duplication isn’t inherently a bad thing,” Brunsell told the board via Zoom. “We want to make sure there is no zero-sum thinking involved in interpreting these results or what you as a board might do to act on recommendations.”

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He said students are often drawn to specific programs at specific institutions, and dropping out of a program at one university does not necessarily mean the same types of students would automatically enroll at one of the Regents’ other universities.

Responding to Brunsell’s concerns, Daly said duplication is neither good nor bad within the framework of rpk GROUP. Even if an institution discontinues a program as a full major, many could likely continue to offer courses on the subject, he said.

Daly gave physics as an example – although few students can pursue and earn physics degrees, most universities are required to offer this type of instruction to students in other related subjects, such as engineering.

“Duplication is very often necessary when we think about the geographic distribution of the universities we’re talking about,” Daly said. “There can be very good and valid reasons why an institution can have a specific program, especially at the undergraduate level.”

Amid the enrollment crisis, Kansas colleges are looking to become “efficient” and cut costs

rpk GROUP’s framework and analysis, if the board decides to adopt the approach to evaluating programs, comes at a time when universities and colleges are trying to cut costs.

Stagnant government funding in recent years, coupled with declining enrollment dating back even before the pandemic and government mandates to maintain tuition fees, have left many of the public universities in dire financial straits.

Emporia State University sought and received Regent’s approval earlier this fall to shorten terms and lay off dozens of staff and faculty as part of a major restructuring of many university programs. Though that decision met with a major backlash on campus, Ken Hush, Emporia’s state president, told regents that otherwise the university would have stayed on course for the financial crisis.

More:Emporia State will cut dozens of faculty and staff positions as part of university restructuring

On Wednesday, Regents also approved Fort Hays State University’s proposal to reorganize its college of arts, humanities and social sciences, consolidating 11 departments into five to become more cost-effective.

Provost Jull Arensdorf told Regents that the university has saved about $150,000 in “efficiency” so far, and that may not necessarily mean cuts as the university has attempted to eliminate positions through attrition.

However, she acknowledged that the changes did not come without resistance.

“There was fear, there was dialogue,” said Arensdorf. “There was fear, there was acknowledgment of losses. But we have come to a recognition this fall that may be acceptance for some but excitement for others about what this might bring to the college and the programs our university is creating for our students. “

Similarly, Rolph, Chair of the Regent, said he understands students and faculty may have concerns about how the rpk GROUP framework, if adopted, could impact their specific programs.

But while Regents will receive the firm’s recommendations, Rolph said the board “does not take these as gospel,” and is asking staff and faculty at each university to provide feedback after the group released its final written recommendations to each in early January institution has submitted. The Board is expected to take action to adopt a recommended framework later in the spring.

“The goal in doing this is not to eliminate programs, but to ensure that when a program needs to be eliminated, we have a fair and transparent process that allows us to take action that is considerate of the people of the program,” said Rolph.

Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.

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