State may try to grow shared degrees

System officials cite under-enrollment at various campuses

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Leaders of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities want more of their students to enroll in collaborative degree programs that would rely on courses and instructors based on more than one campus.

A report being presented in Harrisburg Monday to the faculty union is expected to include recommendations for "shared programs" in foreign languages like French, German and Spanish and in physics, said State System of Higher Education officials, including Karen Ball, vice chancellor for external relations.

These pilot programs, potentially using software that enables distance learning, would involve degree programs that on individual campuses may be under-enrolled, officials said.

"The idea is not to have the student be campus-bound," Ms. Ball said Friday. "The focus is to have our students benefit from being part of a system.

"These students will get part of their program or a course offering from faculty that's on a campus that's not their [home] campus," she added.

The idea flows from a systemwide review of scores of undergraduate and graduate programs that have low enrollments on individual campuses.

During Monday's meeting, State System administrators are expected to outline which of these programs they plan to discontinue or impose an enrollment moratorium on, and which others will continue unchanged or with modifications.

Ms. Ball said she could not identify the programs or estimate how many are involved until leaders of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) are briefed.

The program review stretching back to last fall is being undertaken amid what some are calling the worst financial challenge in the history of the State System, whose 14 schools include California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania.

At least four universities have announced actual or possible work force cuts to deal with both waning state support amid the recession, and the anticipated loss starting in July 2011 of $38 million in federal stimulus aid that allowed the State System's 14 universities to offset cuts in their state appropriations.

The 14 schools, which collectively enroll 117,000 students, also are facing a major increase in their required contributions to the State Employees Retirement System.

Nevertheless, Ms. Ball said any cost savings that might be realized are secondary to a more over-arching objective: ensuring classroom quality and that the system's 1,260 undergraduate and graduate degree programs are relevant.

"This is being student driven," she said. "What courses are in high demand? What courses are in low demand? Are the courses that are in low demand still essential for core areas of our system?"

She said elimination of some programs potentially frees up faculty resources to enable new programs to emerge. "We will continue to introduce new programs as there is a need," she said.

A representative from APSCUF's Harrisburg office could not be reached for comment late Friday.

In recent months, some faculty have expressed worry that the degree reviews are a prelude to reducing the number of professors across the system, despite an increase of 22,000 students over the last decade.

Francisco Alarcon, a vice president with APSCUF's Indiana campus chapter, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February that an important role of the 14 campuses has been delivering affordable education to students near their homes. Many students do not want, nor can they afford, to move across the state to find a major no longer offered on their home campus, he said.

Shared programs are not a completely foreign concept within the State System.

For example, a master of nursing program is offered jointly by Clarion and Edinboro, and a master of social work program is offered jointly by Millersville and Shippensburg universities, said State System spokesman Kenn Marshall.

"We hope to encourage much greater collaboration between and among the universities to help enhance student learning opportunities," he said.

Mr. Marshall said students would not have to leave their campus to receive instruction from elsewhere within the State System. "It could be online. It could be through teleconferencing. Any number of ways using technology," he said.

Degree programs on individual State System campuses are subject to review every five years. But the current process is the first such systemwide review, and in recent months, programs singled out for a closer look based on enrollment have run the gamut, from degrees within geography and mass communication to others in physics, economics and math.

Mr. Marshall said any program placed on moratorium would continue to offer students already registered or enrolled, including incoming freshmen, courses they need to graduate. "We have an obligation to, and certainly will serve, the students who are there," he said.


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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