April 22, 1997
by Edmund Tsang
Without fanfare, the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) is carrying out its newly-acquired power to pare down the number of two-year community colleges and four-year universities in the State of Alabama. Act 96-557, signed into law on May 20, 1996, by Gov. Fob James, assigns ACHE the responsibility "to establish standards that programs offered by public two-year and four-year institutions of higher education must satisfy; and permits the commission to terminate programs failing to satisfy these standards."
Act 96-557 also specifies the criterion that ACHE will use: "Productivity standards shall be based, primarily, but not exclusively, on the annual average number of degrees conferred during a five-year period for senior institutions and a three-year period for two year institutions...The data source for degrees awarded per category per institution will be the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) annual completions survey."
For four-year colleges and universities, the "viability standard annual graduation rates" defined by Act 96-557 is 7.5 graduates per year for academic programs granting baccalaureate degrees, 3.75 graduates per year in masters degrees, 3 graduates per year in education specialist degrees, and 2.25 graduates per year in doctoral degrees.
After receiving notification of non-viable programs, Act 96-557 states that "[T]he institution has three years from the date of that notification to meet the minimum productivity standard. Failure to meet the minimum productivity standard within the three years will result in the phase-out of the identified programs within three years."
The legislative act also defines seven categories for ACHE to grant waivers, including the success of program graduates in finding employment, the lack of duplication of that program in the state, and market demands.
According to the timeline described in the minutes of the February 14, 1997 meeting of ACHE's Academic Affairs Committee, the commission will "create a list of non-viable programs" by July, 1997.
When asked if the commission is on schedule to create the list of non-viable programs by July, 1997, Jane Gullatt, ACHE member representing the Third Congressional District, told The Harbinger in a telephone interview on April 16: "We are on schedule." Gullatt said ACHE's staff are presently carrying out the task of collecting the necessary data for program assessment as well as inputs from affected institutions regarding waivers.
"We are looking at other ways to judge viability [besides the number of graduates per year]," Gullett said. "The staff are looking at it right now. They will bring it back to the commission." Gullett added that the Academic Affairs Committee will be discussing those waiver criteria in a meeting on April 25.
Commissioner Bettye Fine Collins, representing the Sixth Congressional District, said in a telephone interview on April 17 that she is against granting any waivers at all. Collins said she believes officials from higher education will invariably find loopholes in whatever criteria ACHE establishes for waivers. "Then the commission will be meeting forever to deal with these waivers," Collins said.
Collins added that consolidation plans must have "real teeth" to ensure compliance. She cited the case involving an aviation training program offered by two two-year colleges in the state. "Even though one of the two director's positions was eliminated," Collins said, "but everyone on the staff stayed on and the program in fact expanded."
Trip Pittman, representing the First Congressional District, told The Harbinger on April 18 that his initial reaction was also against granting any waivers. "I'm not saying there aren't some conditions for waivers." Pittman added. "But we have to stick to the statute passed by the legislators."
Pittman said he was driving back from Montgomery the evening before. Traffic signs on the interstates announce that three universities exist in Montgomery, and reminded him of the importance of addressing unnecessary duplication of academic programs among higher education in Alabama.
[The fact that there are three institutions of higher learning in Montgomery is linked to the history of racial segregation in the State of Alabama. Alabama State University, a historically black college, was created by the state legislators in 1887 and became the first institution of higher learning to be located in Montgomery.
"Then the State Legislature allowed other schools to open branch campuses in the same service areas of Alabama State University so whites don't have to attend historically black universities," state representative John Knight told The Harbinger last year. ("Higher Education Reform In Black & White," The Harbinger, January 9, 1996)
One of the factors that ACHE will consider in deciding waivers as described in Act 96-557 concerns the compliance with the ruling of the class-action segregation-in-higher-education lawsuit bearing the representative's name, Knight v. Alabama.]
"I don't want people to think that we are against higher education," Pittman said. "We must face the reality that higher education is highly subsidized by tax dollars and there is a fixed amount of money to be spent on education in Alabama. Everyone said we should spend more money on K-12, so we must eliminate the unnecessary duplication of academic programs in the state."
According to a report prepared by the staff of ACHE, there are 2,100 existing programs in public 2-year and 4- year institutions. According to the report, "The first viability analysis, using 50% lower standards than Act 96-557, identified 777 degree awards in four-year institutions and 627 degree awards in two-year institutions which did not meet the standards."
Each of the three ACHE members was asked this question: Would a scholarship fund be established from the savings of program consolidation to help those students affected by degree-program termination and who were able to attend college by living at home so they can attend a university away from home?
Gullatt, who serves on the Finance and Student Assessment committees of ACHE, said she cannot answer that "because only the State Legislature can make appropriations." "We have talked about that question," Gullatt said, "We understand there will be hardship in some cases."
"We can't expect higher education to be within a stone's throw from everyone's home," commissioner Collins said. She added in the telephone interview that she does not agree with the notion that access to higher education is a "right."
Pittman said he supports providing scholarships to those who are affected and "who can make the grade." He added: "This is not strictly an issue of money; it's more of an issue of quality. Don't forget that education has an economic factor too, and that is, will the graduate be able to make a living."
"In some cases, students will have to pay a bit more if there is a large demand for a certain program," Pittman said. "Should everyone have access to higher education? I don't think we can provide that to everyone."
As an overall goal for ACHE, Pittman said he favors the establishment of "three or four" regional centers in the state. "A program will be offered in a regional center if there is a clear demand for it," he added.
Harold W. Baldwin, professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at University of South Alabama, said a department deemed non-viable would not necessarily "close shop." Offering courses to philosophy majors is only part of the work of his department, Dr. Baldwin said. "Supporting our major requires only a minuscule addition of resources; it takes roughly one additional course per quarter to take care of our degree students." Baldwin said he sees little benefit to the state in wholesale elimination of academic programs.
"On the downside, it could affect university accreditation all across the board to all the other departments," Baldwin added. "It would also have an impact on those undergraduates who want to go to graduate schools, if they are unable to take advanced courses."
Concerning the number of programs in the liberal arts in the state that can satisfy the current numerical requirement of graduates per year, Baldwin said he doubts if any program could satisfy that degree requirement. "But how can an institution of higher learning call itself a university without a major in philosophy or other liberal arts major?"
Commissioner Pittman also echoed that view in the telephone interview last week. "The liberal arts is the foundation of western civilization. So in that sense we should not focus on only economic factors," Pittman said. "I hope that that won't be the case." That is why the idea of setting up regional centers of higher education in the state makes sense to him.
Dr. Heide Lomangino, assistant professor of Foreign Language and Literature at the University of South Alabama, said basing degree-program viability solely on the number of graduates a program produces can hurt the quality of education for all students. If an academic department can only teach lower-division service courses but is not able to offer advanced courses because it has lost the degree students, faculty scholarship will suffer. Furthermore, this would have a ripple effect on library holdings, which indirectly affects the quality of education for all students.
As far as she knows, Dr. Lomangino said there is just one Spanish program in the State of Alabama that meets the 7.5 graduates per year requirement. She added that a consortium of foreign language and literature programs has been meeting to discuss the impact of Act 96-557.