May 10, 2021

EDUCATION FRONTLINES: Narrowing university options

Posted May 10, 2021 12:08 PM
<b>John Richard Schrock</b>
John Richard Schrock


Across the United States, budget cuts are being made to public universities, resulting in the elimination of a wide range of college programs. While these are mainly in the arts and humanities, foreign languages and physics programs are also being canceled. Much of the drive behind this is a belief that students select the best programs and those with lower enrollments are therefore inferior.

That was the business school theory for deciding what products should remain on the store shelf.  Calculate the space required and the profits each product produced. Then remove any product that did not “carry its weight” in making money for the big box stores. But when customers came to the general store and could not find that product they only occasionally needed, they went elsewhere to where it was available and bought their everyday products there as well.

It did not take long before the big stores returned those less-commonly-bought products to their shelves. The big stores were ultimately serving their selfish profit line, keeping the less-bought items so they wouldn’t lose customers. But they were also providing an important service in supplying their customers with the less-profitable but nevertheless vital commodities.

Our universities are in a similar situation. Thanks to the television-shows-of-the era, many students will enroll in undergraduate forensic science programs, perhaps producing twice as many graduates as law enforcement needs. Meanwhile, too few major in physics teaching, producing perhaps one graduate for every ten physics teacher vacancies. When legislators cut funding for public state universities, and push universities to treat students as customers, they ignore their the state’s need for physics teachers.

One fact stands out in this situation: over 60 percent of U.S. public university students change their major at least once! That causes students to take more than the four years of coursework required. Most students enter college with only a faint idea of what major they want to pursue. That is where the broader range of general education courses become important and where a majority of our students come to realize where their passion is. When funding is cut to universities and they follow the student as a “customer,” our students’ lose the some of the opportunity to find their passion, as when the school cuts its foreign language or physics education programs.

Keeping these lower enrollment programs is not a luxury. It is important for the future well-being of the population. I knew one administrator who would tell students: “If you find a career that you love, you will never work a day in your life!”  By this he meant that you would go to work early and love what you do. The paycheck would arrive as an afterthought.

This advantage of our traditional U.S. educational system became very evident while I was briefly at a Chinese university before the pandemic. I was invited by a student club to come talk. There were no Chinese professors present. The students were very blunt. “We want to follow our dreams.”

Like their American student counterparts, 60 percent of them wanted to change their major. But they couldn’t. China dramatically expanded its universities since 1980—nearly 12-fold. Most class sizes have 60 or 120 students. There are no spare seats and no capacity for a student to change major and stay an extra year. They seized the opportunity to attend the highest ranked university their high school leaving test score will allow, and often had to select a major of temporary interest. But then they get more excited about another student’s textbooks in a different major. But they cannot change. To stay another year would deny an entering freshman. “We are stuck in our major; we cannot change.” What can I tell them?

“Did your parents and grandparents have this opportunity?” I ask, knowing the answer.

“No, very few could go to college. Our parents knew hunger. Our grandparents, before 1949, saw starvation,” they admitted. Students know they are more fortunate, but still limited by university capacity.

“China is building even more university capacity, especially in the southern provinces,” I tell them. “Perhaps someday your children will have the opportunity to change majors and attend five years.”

Meanwhile, American public universities are cutting programs. Our students will have fewer options to find a job they will love. But China’s university expansion will mean that more of their students will be able to follow their dreams.  

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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities in 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.