WVU is Making Smart Choices in Its Program Review
Last month, West Virginia University (WVU) announced that 15 programs had been recommended for merger or discontinuation following a program review. Generally, these decisions are consistent with the Cardinal Institute’s report in September, Bad Returns, which focused on graduates’ debt and income two years after graduation, program by program.
Unfortunately, the federal dataset used in the report uses generic labels, one result being that several programs can be found under the same label. Nevertheless, we can make some noteworthy reflections on WVU’s decisions.
Exploring the Programs WVU is Cutting
The dataset shows that WVU’s bachelor’s degrees in “fine and studio arts” would fail the U.S. Department of Education’s gainful-employment test for having highly indebted graduates relative to their income. Indeed, these graduates are earning just $17,700 per year while holding debt of $27,000 each. (Please note caveats in the report.)
Perhaps accordingly, WVU has chosen to combine its ceramics, printmaking, and sculpture degrees into a single bachelor’s degree. It may help some students to gain a broader set of skills, though it seems necessary for them to get good enough at something to specialize in it. Whether one really needs a bachelor’s degree to work in these arts, however, is rather doubtful.
Similarly, does anybody need a bachelor’s degree to be a puppeteer? Maybe, if it’s not merely to make Muppets but instead to learn how to use puppets in the context of children’s pedagogy. WVU’s bachelor’s degree in puppetry was on the chopping block and is now just on probation. But the dataset shows that WVU’s bachelor’s degrees in “Drama/Theatre Arts and Stagecraft” also would fail the gainful-employment test. These graduates earn only $19,500 while holding $25,600 in debt.
WVU’s several master’s degree programs in fine and studio arts only produced a total of seven graduates over two years, according to the dataset. It makes sense that these programs (ceramics, graphic design, intermedia and photography, painting, printmaking, and sculpture) are going to be merged.
Next, the bachelor’s degrees in music collectively would be on probation with the U.S. Department of Education, according to the federal dataset. These WVU graduates earn a somewhat more livable $28,600 per year while holding a somewhat lower $22,000 in debt. The bachelor’s degree in contemporary and integrative musical performance is going to end. Also, the university’s bachelor’s degree in piano performance is being rolled into the general music performance major, following the program review. WVU may want to keep a close eye on the rest of the department.
It seems likely that the other programs on WVU’s termination or consolidation list are in similar situations.
Students Should Learn from the Data Which Degrees are Bad Bets
It is true that when students choose the arts and humanities, they often understand what they are in for. They know they are signing up for lives of lower income compared with their peers, yet they often expect fulfilling careers. Even so, learning to code or gain some other bachelor’s-level skill seems like a smart backup plan.
All told, from economic data alone, it looks like West Virginia University has made thoughtful choices. Of course, some faculty members in the lower-performing departments are upset, and they have even floated a no-confidence vote in the president and provost (to be held on Monday). But it’s sour grapes. Run stronger programs if you want the public to pay for them.
Adam Kissel is a senior fellow for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.