US colleges -- and students -- change

Tight budgets and prospects of falling enrollment are forcing most colleges and universities to pare down and pair up in new, more imaginative ways. Many institutions have long considered it a point of pride to try to be all things to all pupils. But under the constraints of less money and fewer students , a number of schools are shelving the smorgasbord approach for a more probing look at what it is they really do best. Focusing on their strengths, many colleges and universities are dropping programs that are less central to their missions. Sometimes, to fill in larger gaps, they are joining hands with neighboring institutions.

''The kind of response I'm seeing is a much clearer division of labor than in the past,'' notes Lattie Coor, president of the University of Vermont. The university recently dropped its Chinese and Japanese language courses on the theory that such specialized study was already available at nearby Middlebury College.

''Those which will continue to be universities of distinction are the ones which will make choices and realize they can't do everything,'' says C. Peter Magrath, president of the University of Minnesota, which has trimmed or deleted some 100 academic programs in response to a recent 10 percent cut in state funding. ''We felt that the only way to preserve our quality was by making some very tough decisions on what our top priorities are.''

Few educators view the reordering as retrenchment.

''It's often assumed that improvement has to mean growth - we have to change that,'' insists University of Chicago president Hanna Gray.

''If an institution is strong and self-confident and knows, as each one must, what its strengths are, these are not concessions of weakness,'' agrees University of Vermont president Coor. ''They are a statement of strength.''

For small institutions, complementary programs on neighboring campuses not only can save money, but also can draw higher-quality faculty and appeal to a broader array of students.

''It gives small colleges a leg up on the market because their offerings can be more diverse,'' notes Joseph O'Neill, executive director of the Conference of Small Private Colleges.

Still, many of the cuts being made, particularly by hard-pressed state colleges and universities, are politically sensitive. The University of Missouri , for one, has been caught in a bind. Ordered by the General Assembly to make sharp cuts, university officials drew up a specific package to whittle $17 million. Those specifics set off such a tirade of letter and phone protests from citizens and alumni that all proposals were put under a two-year hold. ''The pressure was such that we had to call a halt to the whole process,'' recalls university spokesman Guy Horton.

Where, then, are campuses making cuts?

Most institutions try first to pare administrative costs such as travel, supplies, and equipment. Some, particularly smaller colleges, are jointly purchasing everything from heating oil and light bulbs to insurance. Some campuses, such as the University of Vermont, are saving dollars by setting up their own telephone systems.

Even though program cuts are distinctly second choice, they usually must be made. First to go on many campuses have been newer interdisciplinary courses. And lately, for a number of reasons including declining enrollment, several campuses have reduced or cut out traditional professional programs for women such as library science, nursing, home economics, and education.

Student enrollment in a program is not always decisive in what is cut - particularly at a private university that specializes in graduate studies and research such as the University of Chicago. Though the university has a smaller academic staff than five years ago and is converting its money-losing school of continuing education into a graduate residence, support is assured for a half-century-old scholarly project to assemble and edit an Assyrian Dictionary.

''Some things you do to stay alive and maintain quality even if they don't have any students,'' explains Chicago president Gray.

In addition to knowing an institution's own strengths, most administrators and educators concede they must also consider the strengths of surrounding institutions.

Taxpayer-supported public institutions, in particular, are expected to watch for and ward off system-wide duplication. Many of these colleges are taking a team approach to the development of professional schools and specialized graduate programs. Alaska and Nevada, for instance, do not even try to have their own law schools. Several Western states have no dental schools. Students in five Northwest states (the number will climb to 10 in the fall of 1984) may attend a number of specialized graduate programs at in-state tuition rates. A number of Southern states have a similar arrangement which they call an ''academic common market'' involving 500 specialized graduate and undergraduate programs.

Other states have been looking hard at whether or not they should consolidate or reduce some programs. In Kentucky, for instance, public universities offer three law schools; West Virginia has three state-supported medical schools. But Jim Mingle, research associate with the Southern Regional Education Board, remains skeptical.

''A lot of these mergers get talked about but don't get really carried out because the political costs are so high and sometimes the dollar savings do not turn out to be that much,'' he says.

cc15p Cooperative winnowing can be particularly tough where geographically close state universities with similar offerings are run by independent boards. Michigan is a case in point. Its state budget is one of the hardest pressed in the nation, but the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, 60 miles apart, are run by separate boards who separately approach the Legislature for funds. Each university has made substantial cuts individually, but they have done little, if anything, in tandem.

The Midwest, a region where many states have two or three university systems, happens to be the only part of the country where the states do not subscribe to a regional education compact. There currently are three such compacts covering the rest of the country. Such compacts have been a strong force behind many of the cooperative efforts to develop a network of complementary professional schools. For instance, students in the Western states who want to study veterinary medicine at a public school go to Oregon State University or Washington State University.

Still, many observers argue that the combination of tighter funds, fewer students, and sometimes overbuilt physical plants must inevitably reshape the nation's higher education network into a more complementary one.

''As students grow scarcer, cooperation becomes all the more important,'' says University of Pittsburgh chancellor Wesley Posvar. ''We must foster it.''

Educators insist the key to making needed cuts and mergers in a progressive way is long-range planning - and a selective rather than wholesale approach to the job.

''Across-the-board cuts are politically the easiest to make, but they're also guaranteed to lead to mediocrity,'' insists University of Minnesota president Magrath.

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