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Ohio universities keep cutting programs — what’s the deal?

Students walk by a building on Kent State University's campus.
Eman Abu-Khaled
Ideastream Public Media
Kent State University recently announced it intends to cut spending by tens of millions of dollars over the next four years. That could result in cuts to academic programs and employee positions.

Last week, Kent State University announced it intends to cut spending by tens of millions of dollars in coming years — a move that’ll likely amount to fewer programs and less staff.

Days earlier, the University of Toledo published plans to suspend and merge 48 of its degree programs.

The schools are the latest to join a growing list of Ohio schools to announce looming cuts.

Cuts like these aren’t new to colleges and universities; they’ve been happening across the nation for years. But they come at a complex moment for higher education in Ohio.

Why are so many schools making cuts?

Ohio is fast approaching “the demographic cliff,” said Liam Knox, an admissions and enrollment reporter for Inside Higher Ed.

As the U.S. birth rate falls, high school class sizes are getting smaller and smaller, so there are fewer traditionally aged high school students around to continue on to higher education.

A sign inside Youngstown State University's Tod Hall in Youngstown. It's surrounded by green plants and portraits.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
A sign inside Youngstown State University's Tod Hall in Youngstown. Students protested outside Tod Hall on Jan. 10, 2024 against cuts in programs in the fields of music, art and geography.

“Ohio is deep in one of those pockets where the demographics are looking particularly poor,” Knox said.

At the same time, an increasing number of people are losing confidence in the value of higher education, he said, especially in the face of ballooning student debt.

“Year over year, more and more Americans have very little faith in the value of a college degree, especially, in a lot of places, a liberal arts college degree,” he said. “So more and more students and families, especially those who are lower or middle income, are skeptical of the return on investment.”

At some schools, enrollment in certain degree programs has gotten so low that colleges argue it doesn’t make financial sense to continue them. According to Miami University, for example, fewer than 35 students were enrolled in each of the programs it identified to cut.

“Really what is transpiring is students are interested in different academic programs than they were in the past,” said Todd Jones, the president and general counsel of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio. “And as you have fewer students in a program and you have fewer students enrolling in a college, it's a double whammy that forces you as a university leader to look at resources and say, ‘Where are we allocating our resources?’”

Losing humanities programs

Often, though not exclusively, universities choose to eliminate programs in the humanities, like foreign languages, religion and music.

“There's a lot more focus on workforce development, on career readiness, on STEM programs,” Knox said.

According to him, the high cost of college means students increasingly want to be sure their degree will lead to employment — and liberal arts degrees in humanities fields don’t carry a reputation of riches.

But that reputation isn’t necessarily a reflection of reality, Knox said. And Todd Jones agrees.

“In reality, the liberal arts [students] are not earning less by the lifetime earnings standard,” Jones said. “They may earn less initially in some areas, but it's not true in the long-term.”

Regardless of the reality of the earnings, though, the perception that a liberal arts degree is worth less puts the programs at risk.

“Liberal arts are absolutely in trouble because of these struggling enrollments and because of the public crisis of confidence,” Knox said.

The consequences

Mónnica Gay, a third-year student at Miami University, worries about what cuts will mean for the future of her school.

As a Latina student and president of the Latiné Student Alliance, she’s particularly concerned about the potential elimination of the Latin American studies program. Last semester, her organization protested the impending cut.

“For us, a lot of these majors, a lot of these departments are the only spaces where students have a really concentrated portion of faculty and staff that looks like them and reflects our identities,” she said. “We have a lot of Latinx staff in the Latin American Studies department. If that major gets cut, if the department gets downsized, where is our representation in faculty and staff?”

A group of students lean over a table to sign a petition on a college campus.
Zack Carreon
Mónnica Gay and students from Miami's Latiné Student Alliance gather signatures outside Armstrong Student Center to protest potential program cuts.

And she’s concerned about her personal education too. One of her majors — social justice studies — is on the list of programs that could be cut, along with programs like art history, French, German and classical studies.

“I came to Miami thinking that I was going to get a liberal arts education, that it was very well-rounded, that we were getting classes in all sorts of different fields so we could really explore what we wanted to do, because every field is valuable and everything provides value in the future,” she said.

“So when I see that the humanities are getting cut or downsized or just very much changed, and we're not doing the same thing to the more profitable majors like business or STEM, it feels very much like humanities are viewed as less valuable when students should have a right to that education.”

For its part, Miami University has acknowledged the gravity of the situation.

“Miami University is facing unprecedented fiscal, societal and political challenges that are prompting very difficult decisions about our curriculum,” it said in a statement. “Tragically, we no longer have the resources to support the current portfolio of academic programs, particularly our lowest-enrolled degree programs or majors.”

The conversation points to a bigger dilemma now facing higher education, said Liam Knox.

Many of the schools considering major cuts in the face of budget deficits are regional public schools, which he said are more likely to serve lower income students, first-generation students and students of color.

“There's a lot of concern that these programs, whether they're music programs or literature programs or philosophy programs, that they're increasingly the territory of selective, expensive institutions,” he said.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.