Streamline Redundant Programs at the State Level

One objective of state governments is to provide a quality post-secondary education system to its citizens. To achieve this, many universities are constructed and subsequently receive state funding. In an ideal world, every university could provide excellent programs in every discipline imaginable. However, funding for higher education is constrained by limited resources. When universities begin offering the same programs, excessive duplication can become inefficient. There is a tremendous amount of evidence to suggest that inefficient duplicative programs are widespread in American higher education.

In a 2009 report, the Tennessee Higher Education Committee (THEC) determined that state institutions had 24 doctoral programs that each produced less than 3 total graduates between 2004 and 2009.296 Additionally, THEC also found that nearly 20 percent of the states’ graduate programs are duplicated elsewhere in the state. Similarly, within the 14 institutions making up the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education, approximately 43 percent of programs awarded 10 degrees or fewer in 2008. Furthermore, East Stroudsburg University, Mansfield University, Clarion University and Slippery Rock University, each awarded just one philosophy degree in 2008. These inefficiencies are not concentrated solely in Tennessee and Pennsylvania; rather, they exist across the entire country.

Reducing duplication among institutions can alleviate some of the waste and inefficiency of the current model, and allow resources to be used more productively to achieve states’ educational missions. Collaborative efforts to consolidate programs have been utilized within and among several states to reduce costs and improve the educational opportunities available to students.

The Benefits of Reducing Duplication

The clearest benefit of reducing duplication is reduced costs. Yet there are a number of other important benefits as well. This approach can free up resources to be used in more productive ways, improve educational opportunities for students, and incentivize universities to define and build on their strengths.

Reducing Costs

It is no coincidence that duplication reviews and eliminations usually coincide with times of budget shortfall. University and government leaders often consider cost savings the greatest benefit of reducing excessive duplication. Reducing something inherently means doing less of it; thus, reducing duplicative programs/disciplines across state institutions will provide savings. The amount of savings is difficult to estimate, since it will vary greatly depending upon the type of elimination. For example, providing an engineering program requires more resources, on average, than an English program. Since engineering and English students alike pay the same tuition and fee amounts (within the same institution), holding other factors equal, eliminating the engineering department will cut a greater amount of costs. This may not be the optimal solution, but is an example of how different types of cuts affect estimated savings.

Differences in the magnitudes of cuts further complicate the calculation of the average estimated cost saved through eliminations. For example, a school may decide to eliminate its English program, because it is a duplication of a similar program at a nearby state school, but maintain several of the department’s professors to teach general education requirement classes in English.

Perhaps the best way to explore cost savings is to examine the relative amounts of different types of university expenditures. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education examines the different operating expenditure categories of colleges and universities. Figure 11.1 shows the percentage share each holds of total operating expenditures at American public 4-year institutions.

As Figure 11.1 shows, instructional expenditures comprise the largest percentage of schools’ operating budgets. Instruction and research are the two major categories where state-wide duplications are most likely, and thus the two categories where eliminations will originate. Since instructional expenditures are so large, cuts to this category can save significant amounts of money. Instructional expenditures can be broken down into five sub-categories: salaries and wages, employee fringe benefits, operations and maintenance of the facility plant, depreciation, and all other costs.

As Table 11.1 shows, public 4-year schools spent, on average, $74 million in labor costs for instruction ($57.9 million on salaries and wages and $16.1 million on employee fringe benefits). This shows that the major cost saving area realized from reducing duplications is from reduced expenditures on compensation for employees engaged in the delivery of instruction of underutilized courses. Reduced duplication would save money in other areas, too, since eliminations would result in fewer resources being required for other things, such as administration, classrooms/buildings, and maintenance personnel.

Figure 11.1: Operating Expenses Percent Breakdown by Category, Public 4-Year Colleges and Universities, 2018
Figure 11.1: Operating Expenses Percent Breakdown by Category, Public 4-Year Colleges and Universities, 2018


Table 11.1: Average Total Instructional Expenses by Sub-category, Public 4-Year Colleges and Universities, 2008
Table 11.1: Average Total Instructional Expenses by Sub-category, Public 4-Year Colleges and Universities, 2008


Increasing Efficiency by Reallocating Resources

Explicit cost savings is not the only way resources could be saved. Cuts to one relatively unproductive area that allow resources to be transferred to other, more productive, areas can increase efficiency. The opportunity cost of resources is important. Statewide collaborations, such as the ones discussed previously, often make available resources (such as faculty, administration, etc) that are no longer needed by cut programs. However, these resources can be transferred to other areas of a university that may be underdeveloped and require new resources. This saved opportunity cost of resources can be used to do any number of things, such as lowering costs to students, improving graduation rates, increasing institutional access, providing more on-campus events, etc. Furthering goals such as these would normally require devoting new resources and hiring new faculty/staff. By reallocating resources from relatively unneeded areas to more urgently needed ones, efficiency is enhanced, which leads to valuable savings.

Improving Educational Quality

Aside from cutting costs and reallocating resources to more efficient uses, improving educational quality is a significant potential benefit. Educational quality is often constrained by resources. In any state there are a limited number of quality professors in any given discipline and limited financial resources to support various programs. Furthermore, in the current model, individuals’ access to these resources is largely constrained by institutional affiliation and geographic location. However, the new model could utilize emerging technologies to make the best professors and courses available online to a far greater number of students.

Additionally, the quality of interdisciplinary programs such as biomedical engineering can benefit greatly from this model. For example, rather than a single institution having to devote resources to develop high-quality programs in both medicine and engineering, two separate institutions can specialize in whichever one in which they already excel and then collaborate. As we will see in the case study section, this specific example has been implemented effectively between institutions in North Carolina and Virginia.

Encouraging Institutions to Establish Well-Defined Priorities

Finally, clearly defined institutional priorities are important when making prudent budgetary decisions. As Paul Brinkman noted, “To have an efficient and effective state higher education system, it is necessary to delineate clearly the mission of each of the state's public [institutions of higher education]." Yet trying to define institutional priorities can be extremely difficult for administrators because it can create significant political conflict among stakeholder groups.

These political conflicts can be a serious disincentive for administrators to define comparative strengths within their own institutions. However, state-wide collaborations require either the state government or the institutions themselves to determine comparative advantages. In this way, statewide collaborations can overcome political disincentives that discourage administrators from the important task of identifying core institutional strengths that deserve the greatest support.

Costs of Reducing Duplications

When analyzing public policy, in addition to examining the benefits of a plan, one must also consider its costs to determine the best way forward. Reducing duplications in higher education programs through state consolidations and collaborations can be challenging and presents some significant costs.

Time and Resources

To begin, a certain amount of planning must take place to formulate and implement duplication reduction schemes. In the case of greater collaboration between universities, a number of steps must happen. First, some form of communication must take place that suggests that other institutions are interested in collaborating. Second, participating schools will need to create a strategic plan that evaluates their current programs and determines which ones are strong candidates for collaboration. These actions can be costly in terms of both administrators’ time and salaries, but also can create costly political conflict within universities because various stakeholder groups are likely to disagree about which programs are good candidates for consolidation/collaboration.

Less Competition

Another potential cost of reducing duplication may be reduced competition. Competition generally increases efficiency, but offering fewer programs in a discipline reduces competition. This could lead to stagnation, since there would then be a weaker competitive mechanism pushing programs to be sensitive to consumers’ desires. Reducing the number of programs may also lower intellectual diversity, since fewer scholars will be needed.

Travel Costs

When students have a low willingness to travel to distant institutions, eliminating duplication can impose costs. Cutting a program negatively impacts students who wished to study the particular field at that institution. Although the program would be offered elsewhere, an individual may dislike that school for many reasons, such as location or campus culture. Furthermore, many students prefer to live at home and commute to college to save money. Having to choose either a different field of study, or travel to a more distant institution, may impose substantial costs in terms of student welfare.

For example, a recent study by Belgian economists Stijn Kelchtermans and Frank Verboven found that social loss from eliminating duplications is large in Belgium because of students’ “low willingness to travel to other institutions.” It concluded that the social loss is so large that about 90 percent of duplication eliminations provide a net social loss. However, American students typically have a higher willingness to travel than their Belgian counterparts. More importantly, rapidly developing technology allows students to complete degrees entirely online, making physical travel less of an issue. Finally, it is important to also consider that social losses arising from travel costs are likely to be more severe for undergraduates than graduate students. Graduate study is intended to be more specialized, and thus graduate students, relative to undergraduates, are usually more likely to select a school based primarily on a specific academic program. Thus, focusing consolidation more heavily on graduate education courses may help minimize this cost.

How to Reduce Duplications

It can be a challenging task to determine which programs at which institutions to preserve and which to eliminate. Economic theory suggests that, in production allocation settings, parties should specialize in the area in which they hold a comparative advantage and then trade with others to acquire other necessary goods/services that they do not produce themselves. In higher education program offerings, the same principle applies. Institutions should specialize in programs/fields in which they hold a comparative advantage. Those schools that could provide a program at a lower opportunity cost should continue to do so, while those without a comparative advantage in a specific discipline should eliminate their program. Their students could still be able to study that discipline, but would utilize distance educational offerings from the institutions that do hold a comparative advantage in the desired field.

Determining which schools hold comparative advantages in different fields is a complicated task. Either of two major approaches can be used by state government officials. With the first approach, which I will refer to as the centralized approach, state government officials—with input from institutions themselves—determine comparative advantages. The second one, which I will call the decentralized approach, uses market mechanisms to allow institutions themselves to determine comparative advantages and allocations of program offerings.

The Centralized Approach

The centralized approach is the approach that is used almost universally when states and their respective institutions, attempt to eliminate duplications. Since the decentralized approach creates a fully integrated state system of higher education, for those states not desiring such a system, the centralized approach makes more sense.

Under the centralized approach, the state is responsible for determining both the optimal number/quality of disciplines and the comparative advantages of each institution. While both approaches require the state to determine the optimal number/quality of disciplines, the extra task of determining comparative advantages can be quite difficult. Many criteria may be deemed important when determining comparative advantages, and many are subjective. What is important to one person may be unimportant to another. This makes it very difficult for a public official to assess the comparative advantages that institutions hold across many disciplines. The difficulty is even greater when one considers that most states have numerous public institutions of higher education.

However, experience has shown that considering a number of specific criteria can help. Robert C. Dickeson, former president of the University of Northern Colorado and former senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, has outlined several important criteria in his recent book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. While many of them are geared toward reducing duplications within a single institution, they can be applied to state-level reviews as well.

Perhaps the most commonly considered criterion relates to a program’s financial viability. Analyzing program costs against revenues is an important baseline measure. Programs generate revenues through a number of sources, such as students, grants, and donations. If these revenues exceed costs, it may be a good idea to maintain that program. Dickeson also argues that one must consider to what extent new investments will be needed in order to bring a program to a high quality level. This is a crucial question. Even if a program is currently operating at a relatively low cost, it may require too large of an investment to achieve a level of quality equal to or exceeding other programs in the state.

Demand for a program is another important criterion. This demand can exist in two forms: external demand from incoming students and internal demand from an institution’s other programs. External demand is relatively easy to observe through national data on incoming students’ preferences concerning majors. A school with a program that consistently attracts a high proportion of the region’s students who study in that field is a strong candidate for consideration as having a comparative advantage. Internal demand is also important. A program with identical external demand to the same program at another school may be relied upon more heavily by its mother institution to fill general requirements. This can also influence decisions about how to allocate program offerings.

Varying program inputs can also influence such decisions. These can include the existing faculty/staff, curriculum, students, and technology. One school may have more experienced and qualified faculty and staff, or already have the desired levels of full-time versus part-time or tenured versus non-tenured professors. Next, the extent to which existing curricula across various institutions fits the desired curriculum quality is important. Furthermore, the type of students already enrolled in a program may be important. The state may determine that it is already overinvested in a certain discipline. In this case it may want to only preserve programs that have the most highly qualified students. Additionally, the success of past graduates may be a useful metric for determining program quality. Finally, it is likely that preserved programs will need to utilize technology to offer courses to students at schools where those courses have been eliminated. Those programs that already have a considerable technological infrastructure in place will have an advantage.

These many criteria highlight the point that many factors can influence decisions about what programs within a state have a comparative advantage. Certainly financial viability is important, but other factors must be considered, as well. Although implementing cuts using the centralized approach can be quite difficult, it allows for a less radical reorganization of a state’s higher education system than the decentralized approach, while still having the potential to reduce wasteful duplication.

The Decentralized Approach

The decentralized approach allows public institutions themselves to determine comparative advantages and allocate program offerings by utilizing a system similar to carbon credits. Under this scheme, state governments would be responsible for determining the appropriate number of various programs/disciplines—and the optimal quality of those programs—to be offered by the state’s public colleges and universities. The state would then make available this number of licenses for the state’s public institutions to compete for. Licenses would be obtained through a competitive bidding process, with the licenses going to those institutions that can provide the optimal program quality at the lowest cost. State subsidies earmarked for each discipline would only be granted to those institutions holding a license, and subsidy amounts would be set by the state. State officials would be responsible for monitoring programs to ensure that the desired quality standard is met. Any school winning a bid would be responsible for creating and delivering the educational program for which it has a license and would be responsible for producing online courses in the subject for use by students at the state’s other public universities.

Under this approach, schools themselves determine comparative advantages. Because of the competitive nature of license bidding, program licenses would only be granted to schools that value them highly and can produce a high-quality program at a low cost. Through this market mechanism, schools themselves sort out the allocation of producing educational products in an efficient manner. At the same time, duplications are eliminated, since the state grants a limited number of licenses that is equal to the number of programs deemed necessary.

In the long run, this system would probably evolve into a state system of higher education in which each of the public colleges has a distinct specialty. For instance, School A would specialize in business education, School B in humanities, School C in social sciences, etc. The faculty would be physically housed at the respective specialist institution. However, students still wanting — or required — to take courses in a discipline that their home institution does not offer would have access to online courses developed and administered by the faculty at the school that specializes in that subject. For example, a student at School A (business education specialty) wishing to take classes in humanities could take online courses through School B (humanities specialty), while still being enrolled at School A. Since all the institutions belong to the same state system of higher education, credits would be easily transferred between the various institutions.

A few details need further clarification. First, it would be very costly for state governments to determine the optimal number/quality for every single class offering, or even academic major. Thus, licenses would most likely work best when granted to an entire academic discipline (for example business, fine arts, etc). This also has the advantage of allowing faculty within a discipline, but in different sub-disciplines, to have greater opportunities for collaboration. For example, housing social science departments, such as economics and political science, at the same university would facilitate easier faculty collaboration.

Second, it should be noted that the use of this approach does not necessarily require that each institution would have only one specialty, nor that a license for any given discipline would be granted to only one university. Disciplines with higher demand would be made available at a greater number of institutions spread across the state. This would help maintain competition between the institutions, which provides incentives to offer students quality programs at a low cost. Additionally, licenses would expire after a specified number of years, and would then be open for bidding again. This also would encourage competition between institutions and put pressure on schools that have already been granted a license to remain accountable to students and the state. However, lawmakers should be cautious when setting the time until the expiration date. Setting it too soon would be a disincentive for a school to invest resources in the program if they face the possibility of losing it before reaping a return on their investment. Setting the expiration too far into the future would harm competition and allow programs to become complacent.

Finally, this approach would work less well with disciplines that require large amounts of “hands-on” learning through labs. These disciplines, most obviously the natural sciences and engineering, would be difficult to deliver through online instruction, and would likely have to be offered to students in the form of several campuses scattered geographically throughout the state. However, as we’ll see below, Mississippi State University is one example of a university that offers an entirely online doctoral program in engineering.

It should be noted that the decentralized approach is discussed entirely in theoretical terms, as there are no actual cases the authors are aware of where it has been implemented. However, this does not mean that it cannot be a workable model to be developed, tweaked, and implemented for future use. It provides the attractive possibility of reducing duplication through market mechanisms that encourage competition and enhance educational opportunities for students.

Case Studies

To this point, discussion of these ideas has been fairly abstract, so it is difficult to know how efforts to reduce duplication actually apply in a real-world setting. To address this concern, several brief case studies are examined below. These are not meant to be exhaustive analyses, but rather to highlight instances in which these ideas have been implemented in the past.

Leaders in Pennsylvania have strived to find ways to reduce duplicative costs while maintaining academic majors. The Universities of Clarion, Edinboro, Mansfield, and Slippery Rock now share resources to collectively offer courses in French, German, Spanish, and Russian. Furthermore, Clarion and Edinboro have collaborated to provide a joint master’s degree in nursing, while Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Bloomsburg, and Kutztown Universities now jointly offer graduate programs in audiology and speech pathology. The hope is that by increasing the coordination of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, public universities can more effectively collaborate to eliminate statewide duplications and reduce costs.

Besides reducing existing duplications, another important task of state and university leaders is to effectively introduce necessary new programs in a non-duplicative manner. Collaborations in North Carolina and Virginia have developed programs in the growing field of biomedical engineering. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University coordinated their efforts to combine a strong UNC medical school with the strong NCSU engineering school. A similar approach exists between Wake Forest University and Virginia Tech. In each respective arrangement; UNC and Wake Forest enjoy comparative advantages in medical schools, while NCSU and Virginia Tech have comparative advantages in engineering. It would be extremely costly for NCSU and Virginia Tech to establish a medical school as good as the ones at UNC and Wake Forest. Thus, it makes more sense for them to focus their efforts on engineering and to collaborate with UNC and Wake Forest to offer this new joint degree. Likewise, UNC and Wake Forest benefit from specializing in their medical schools and collaborating to provide the engineering dimensions of the program. Splitting the costs of such programs allows these universities to avoid duplications, and provides access to enhanced resources in both fields to students at both universities.

Another example coming out of North Carolina is the merger of the German Studies programs at UNC and Duke University. Duke and UNC have taken advantage of the close proximity of their institutions to offer the nation’s first public-private joint program in German Studies. With a single student body and curriculum, this new program offers students access to the largest German Studies faculty in the country. The universities were able to eliminate the duplication of introductory courses, thus freeing faculty resources to offer students a wider range of course options, while saving money for both schools.

The state of California has three major systems of higher education: the Universities of California, the California State System, and the California Community Colleges. With various systems, lines of responsibility can become blurred. The California Master Plan has allowed for the state’s three systems to be transformed into a single coherent system. The University of California campuses are designated as the state’s primary research institutions and offer nearly all the state’s public doctoral degrees. The California State System’s primary function is undergraduate education and graduate education up to the master’s degree level, including professional and teacher education. The California Community College’s primary mission is providing academic and provisional instruction through the first two years of undergraduate education. This plan encourages each of the three public higher education segments to concentrate on creating its own kind of excellence within its own set of responsibilities, ensuring that not all institutions are trying to do all things.

While this delineation can provide benefits, it can also impose new costs. An example of a case in which potential costs were avoided in California is San Jose State University (SJSU). The school, part of the California State system, has a sizeable engineering program, with several thousand undergraduates and nearly 2,000 master’s level students enrolled in 2007. While many of these students are interested in pursuing a doctoral degree, under the state’s Master Plan, SJSU is prevented from offering that program. The existing engineering Ph.D. programs in the region, such as those at the University of California Berkeley and Stanford University, have high costs and selective admissions. Furthermore, many SJSU master’s students have jobs in the San Jose area that they wish to maintain while working toward a doctoral degree.

Rather than creating a duplicative doctoral program, SJSU reached across state borders to collaborate with Mississippi State University. SJSU students can now earn a doctorate in engineering, through the Mississippi State University’s online classes and dissertation committees without ever having to leave the SJSU campus. Out-of-state tuition for the program is waived, and the degrees read Mississippi State. The SJSU/MSU Engineering Gateway program not only allows the Mississippi State Ph.D. program to grow, but also avoids duplicating existing programs in the state of California. This is an excellent example of the use of technology to mitigate new travel costs potentially imposed by duplication reduction schemes.


The current economic situation serves to remind us of the need to constantly reevaluate the appropriateness of existing programs. Our public higher education system is largely decentralized, which often leads to unnecessary and costly duplications. In many cases there exists an opportunity to reduce excessively duplicative programs by consolidation and collaboration within or across states. However, collaboration requires states to determine the appropriate quality and number of desired academic disciplines and allocate program offerings across the state’s many institutions of higher education. Economic theory suggests that allocations will be most efficient when they are awarded to programs holding a comparative advantage relative to other similar programs. Yet determining which programs, and at which schools, hold comparative advantages is a challenging task.

The decentralized approach eases this challenge by creating a market where schools themselves sort out comparative advantages and allocation decisions based on a bidding process. The centralized approach leaves these decisions up to state and university leaders themselves. These leaders often use a series of criteria to determine comparative advantages. Consolidating duplications and creating a more collaborative system of higher education can have many benefits, such as cutting costs and enhanced educational opportunities for students. There are, of course, challenges to and costs associated with this proposal. Yet we believe that in many cases the expected benefits exceed the expected costs. University administrators and state officials should at the very least seriously consider consolidating to reduce the number of duplicative programs. Doing so could reduce costs for taxpayers and students alike.