06/10/2010 05:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Controlling Higher Education Costs by Curtailing Specialized Programs

As a nation, we are facing years of serious financial constraint, a prospect that will make it increasingly difficult for families to afford still rising college costs. In this immensely challenging environment, higher education leaders must find ways to rein in -- or even reduce -- the expenses of their expansive institutions.

A key area of focus, I believe, will need to be the greatly expanded academic offerings that characterize the curricula at many private and public colleges and universities.

In the last 30 years, higher education programs have expanded dramatically to embrace new academic fields, frequently resulting in a panoply of small sub-departments, minute specialties and mini-concentrations. While many of these additions may be individually defensible, in the aggregate they require the addition of far too many staff and, at the same time, greatly reduce curricular flexibility. There are multiple reasons, both financial and pedagogic, to take a hard look and then curtail the number of these specialized programs.

1) Very small programs taught by just a few faculty members are vulnerable to leaves, sickness and sudden resignations, potentially leaving students without instructors or short on academic credits.

2) Staffing and running numerous small programs adds teaching burdens to faculty, increases staffing needs and detracts from the overall liberal arts experience, which is premised on developing both depth and breadth across the major areas of human knowledge -- not specialized knowledge in a cafeteria curriculum.

3) Very small programs frequently experience enormous instability in course offerings. The overly generous and expansive descriptions found online and in catalogues often turn out to be illusory. Frankly, it's kind of false advertising for a college to claim it has a program in 'XYZ' if the offerings contract, expand, multiply or change significantly every year.

The case for curtailing micro-academic programs is strong, but the obstacles to actually doing it are immense! Invariably, efforts to eliminate any program are met with strident attacks. And removing a program is viewed inaccurately as a judgment that it is not worthy -- or is less worthy -- than those that survive. The truth is they cannot all survive because colleges and universities -- in order to be financially prudent - must focus their precious financial resources on broader programs and departments. Resistance to changing or eliminating these programs is so reflexive that frequently it occurs even when the most committed faculty or staff workers have retired or departed to other places, and there is literally no one to staff a program. There is even resistance when enrollments plummet, as has occurred in some of the traditional engineering specialties in recent years. Other examples of small programs that should be scrutinized include narrow cultural or geographic area studies, identity studies, and "practical sounding" but thin concentrations.

In the case of liberal arts colleges, there is another factor at work: a pervasive fear that "we" will look less attractive compared to research universities unless we lard up our offerings with a rich portfolio of program offerings. The real truth, however, is that research universities also overpromise and under-deliver in many cases with their specialized programs. I know because I taught at one for 18 years before becoming a liberal arts college president!

Finally, I want to underscore that faculty and student aspirations for greater focus on new areas of thought and study can be met without multiplying programs. Seminar series; jointly taught courses; larger divisional, non-departmental umbrella courses; and research seminars can all offer these opportunities without the costs or illusoriness of small unsustainable programs (at Grinnell College, we have undertaken this through more emphasis on interdisciplinarity facilitated by our Expanding Knowledge Initiative). I also want to underscore that I am not suggesting the elimination of all small, even quirky academic offerings. Some small programs led by visionary educators and scholars are academic jewels. My position is that we should selectively invest in and burnish the great ones, while ridding our curricula of less sparkling gems whose aggregate costs and burdens outweigh their benefits.