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MIAMI — A seemingly unending stream of people poured from the massive parking garages just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of a classroom near the entrance to the Florida International University campus.

It was two weeks before the university would be abruptly shut down by the coronavirus, and every corner of the campus seemed jampacked — except this quiet classroom, where a handful of students were studying the societies and cultures of the Caribbean.

Andrea Queeley teaches her course about societies and cultures of the Caribbean at Florida International University. Subjects like this provide “a more responsible and informed approach that is about creating justice and about righting the wrongs of the past,” she says. Credit: Photo: Leslie Ovalle for The Hechinger Report

The course is part of the public university’s African and African Diaspora Studies master’s program, whose previous graduates have gone on to get doctorates or jobs in public policy, diplomacy, law, criminal justice, education, public health and journalism.

But the program’s tiny enrollment of just six students at a university of roughly 60,000 has made it a target of budget cuts and, for the third time in a decade, threatened it with elimination.

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Even before coronavirus, with student numbers in relentless decline, public universities nationwide were purging themselves of majors and degrees that had small enrollments or that governors and legislators said they don’t think lead to jobs.

These have included anthropology, philosophy, languages, art, theater, music and women’s and African American studies.

Public universities nationwide have already started purging themselves of majors and degrees with small enrollments, or that governors and legislators don’t think lead to jobs, including anthropology, philosophy, languages, art, theater, music and gender and African American studies.

Now, with the pandemic taking a multibillion-dollar toll on higher education, state budget allocations already being slashed and enrollment expected to plummet even further, more academic programs are expected to be on the chopping block.

“Everybody’s already talking about program reviews,” said Rudy Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University in Ohio and president of the American Association of University Professors.

Fichtenbaum said he’s heard from faculty alarmed “about what their administrations are looking at — including significant cuts in academic programs.”

The immediate trigger is the huge financial hit that universities have taken, forced as they were to shift instruction online this semester and refund room and board costs to students who were sent home. Now they’re seeing still more revenue evaporate, including from sports and summer programs, and are bracing for a steep drop in enrollment in the fall.

The University of Michigan has forecast losses of as much as $1 billion through the end of the year; the University of California system reports $558 million in unanticipated costs in March  alone. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education projects as much as a $100 million loss this spring. 

Meanwhile, with only a trickle of tax money coming in and coronavirus-related spending pouring out, states are already making cuts to public higher education. Missouri has pulled more than $70 million from its public colleges and universities. New Jersey has frozen spending on them. Ohio has reduced its funding for higher education by $110 million. And that’s just for this year.

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If the 2008 recession is a guide, public universities and colleges are in for even bigger blows than these. Their state allocations fell for four straight years after 2008.

And if that earlier recession holds another lesson, it’s that academic disciplines with small enrollments and those not seen as suitably vocational will be endangered by looming financial realities.

The crisis begs the question: When there’s only so much money and only so many students, how should universities decide what to teach and not teach?

Florida has eliminated 81 programs categorized as “low productivity” at its public universities since 2011, suspended 111 and merged or consolidated 27.

Falling enrollment has already imperiled programs such as FIU’s African and African Diaspora Studies. It’s been on the state’s “low productivity” list — calculated once every four years — in 2011, 2015 and last year, only barely meeting the requirement for master’s programs of producing an average of at least four graduates per year.

Florida has terminated 81 programs categorized as “low productivity” at its public universities since 2011, suspended 111 and merged or consolidated 27, according to the state university system.

Students at Florida International University, including some pursuing master’s degrees in African and African diaspora studies, discuss a book about a massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians by the Dominican army in 1937. Credit: Photo: Leslie Ovalle for The Hechinger Report

In an attempt to escape that fate, FIU’s African and African Diaspora Studies department was moved to the main campus from a satellite campus. It reduced the number of credits required for a degree. It teamed up with other departments to offer joint Ph.D.s. It added an online option. Still, its number of graduates has remained stubbornly low — three to six per year.

Advocates argue that numbers alone don’t reflect the value of providing programs in subjects such as this, however — the only one of its kind in a state whose population is 17 percent black and that has uniquely close connections with Caribbean nations.

If anything, they say, African studies will be even more important in the wake of a pandemic that has starkly exposed global racial inequality in health, socioeconomic status and other measures.

“There is a general lack of or diminution of support for programs such as African studies in the United States. These programs started because of political pressures and the political pressures are no longer there.”

Percy Hintzen, outgoing director, African and African Diaspora Studies program, Florida International University

The broader and important purpose of the program is “to have a more responsible and informed approach that is about creating justice and about righting the wrongs of the past,” said Andrea Queeley, an associate professor of global and sociocultural studies at FIU and affiliate faculty member in African and African Diaspora Studies, who teaches that course in Caribbean cultures.

Some suggest that’s precisely the reason this program and others like it have been singled out.

“There is a general lack of or diminution of support for programs such as African studies in the United States,” said its outgoing director, Percy Hintzen, who is also the former director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “These programs started because of political pressures, and the political pressures are no longer there.”

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State University System of Florida spokeswoman Brittany Wise said the process of reviewing programs ranked as “low productivity” ensures “the efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Where once the value of an academic program was a matter of deliberation and negotiation among faculty senates and administrators, now universities can use sophisticated calculations that divide faculty salaries and other expenses by what students pay per credit hour to determine which programs, courses and instructors at an institution lose money and which bring in more than they cost to provide.

“That’s an almost universal question right now,” said Bob Atkins, CEO of the consulting firm Gray Associates, which has developed precisely this kind of an analysis.

These calculations often suggest that even small programs make money if they bring in students who would not have otherwise enrolled and who also take revenue-producing large lecture classes or pay for dorm rooms and dining plans. Faculty in those programs also often teach other courses that attract much bigger enrollments.

“If you go in and cut small programs based on size, you’re actually going to hurt yourself,” said Atkins. “If you close that program down, you lose all that other revenue. The main point is that small programs more often than not make money.”

Students at Florida International University, including some pursuing master’s degrees in African and African diaspora studies, watch a documentary about a massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians by the Dominican army in 1937. Credit: Photo: Leslie Ovalle for The Hechinger Report

In addition to falling revenue and enrollment and political pressure, another trend outside of universities’ control is making small programs even smaller. 

Anxious about finding jobs and salaries that justify the cost of university tuition, students and their families have been fleeing disciplines such as philosophy and history in favor of such fields as engineering and business; enrollment in language programs alone dropped by 15 percent between the last recession and 2016, the last year for which the figure is available, according to the Modern Language Association, or MLA.

That, too, is likely to accelerate.

“To get a better job” is the top reason freshmen say they enrolled at a public university, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reports. The proportion of undergraduates who receive bachelor’s degrees in the humanities has fallen from a high of one in six to about one in 20, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Meanwhile, politicians were already working to eliminate programs they said weren’t worth taxpayer expense — especially after the last recession made money tight.

“This has been on the agenda as part of the neoliberal attack on higher education for decades now,” Fichtenbaum said. “Any time they see an opportunity to attack particularly the humanities and the social sciences, that’s what they’ll go after.”

“This has been on the agenda as part of the neoliberal attack on higher education for decades now. Any time they see an opportunity to attack particularly the humanities and the social sciences, that’s what they’ll go after.”

Rudy Fichtenbaum, president, American Association of University Professors

 Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said his state’s public technical colleges should teach skills needed for available jobs, “not just the jobs that the universities want to give us.”  Former North Carolina governor Patrick McCrory questioned whether taxpayers should underwrite programs created by what he called an “educational elite,” such as gender studies. “I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Former Florida governor and now senator Rick Scott set up a task force that recommended public universities charge more for “non-strategic majors” such as history and English. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” asked Scott in an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2011. “I don’t think so.”

With its state allocation deeply cut and its enrollment plummeting, the University of Alaska Anchorage in February proposed eliminating 17 degree programs, including English, theater, creative writing, sociology and environment and society. Edinboro University, a public institution in Pennsylvania, cut 31 degree programs and concentrations in 2018, including music.

Western Illinois University eliminated undergraduate majors in 2016 in African American studies, women’s studies, religious studies and philosophy. And universities collectively jettisoned 651 programs in languages between 2013 and 2016, the MLA reports, compared to only one in the four years before that.

Related: Online higher education isn’t winning over students forced off campus by the coronavirus

Now these kinds of disciplines are in for even greater scrutiny. Faculty at Ohio University report that some colleagues in the social sciences and humanities were given notice they would be laid off, including in African American and gender studies; a university spokesman said no faculty in African American and gender studies is are on the final list of layoffs, but would not say whether decisions had been changed. “Conversations with department chairs may have led these individuals to believe their positions would not be renewed, but no official notice was ever given to them by the university,” he said.*

Amedeo Hines is pursuing a master’s degree in African and African diaspora studies at Florida International University, a program that has been imperiled because of low enrollment. Without such programs, he asks, “Who’s going to be producing the knowledge … to talk about the everyday oppression of people that have historically been silenced and continue to be silenced?” Credit: Photo: Leslie Ovalle for The Hechinger Report

“So many of our members are grappling with this issue right now — either pressure from state legislatures who are defunding or underfunding institutions or individual institutions that have fewer tuition dollars,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose members include both public and private universities.

She said programs being cut, which are often in the humanities, are precisely the ones that “prepare students who are grappling with unscripted problems of the future.”

Pasquerella recalled working on a project in Kenya to help engineer better water quality. But “it didn’t matter how ingenious the inventions were if the community members didn’t use them. We needed to convince people to trust people who they didn’t trust.” So the projects brought in teams from African studies programs who understood the culture.

“Unless we recognize the interdependence of these disciplines in a world where we are grappling with global problems, we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” she said.

Back in the classroom at FIU, the small group of students was hushed as it watched a documentary in which survivors told the story of a largely forgotten mass murder of tens of thousands of Haitians by the Dominican army on the border between the two countries in 1937.

Knowledge such as this “ties into everything — not just history, but our current state of racial issues, our current state of social justice and, beyond that, economics,” said one, Cherline Chery, when the lights came up.

“It should absolutely not be about only numbers and revenue,” said another, Jocelyn Moylan. “That would undercut the entire educational mission that I believe universities should be about.”

Asking about the value of women’s studies or African studies “is sort of a silly question to me because if these studies don’t exist in universities, who’s going to be producing the knowledge or having the language to talk about the everyday oppression of people that have historically been silenced and continue to be silenced?” asked still another student, Amedeo Hines.

“This issue that we’re having of people not being interested or funding being lacking, of people not taking the programs seriously, is a testament to how much more seriously we need to be taking these programs.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Bakeman.

* This story has been updated with the university now saying these faculty were not ultimately laid off.

This story about public universities was a collaboration between WLRN radio and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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