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Budget Cuts Threaten Physics Programs Across the Nation

February 2nd, 2012

Budget woes in several states led to at least four schools closing down physics or physics-related majors back in 2010. Because of shortfalls in revenue, state boards of education were forced to scrutinize the academic programs offered at schools and universities under their purview.

Back then, Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana was forced to drop eight degree programs including its physics major and its physics education major. Missouri had to cut out the physics major at Northwest Missouri State University. Missouri State University in Springfield was able to keep its physics major but had to eliminate its engineering physics bachelor’s degree. North Arizona State University in Flagstaff, AZ similarly had to eliminate its engineering physics bachelor’s degree along with its “physics and math” major.

Now it’s Texas’ turn.

Seven public universities in Texas, our second largest state, are being told they have to phase out their physics undergraduate degrees, with three more being put on two-year probation. In an attempt to make the system more efficient, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) reviewed all of its public university’s undergraduate programs that produced a small number of graduates, and recommended a number for termination.

Physics programs at Midwestern State, Prairie View A&M, Tarleton State, Texas Southern, University of Texas-Brownsville and West Texas A&M are all losing their undergraduate physics programs. Current students can finish out their degree, but no new physics students can be accepted. Texas A&M Commerce, the University of Texas-Pan American and Texas Tech are all on two-year probation.

Why? Low enrollment and an even lower number of graduates. And according to the American Physical Society, a professional society of physicists, if the same 25-students-in-5-years standard were applied nationally, 526 of about 760 programs would be shuttered. In other words, close to 70% of the nation’s physics degree programs would be cut.

Those who teach at the college level say addressing the enrollment problem requires more qualified physics teachers in secondary education to increase enthusiasm for the subject among younger students. But it seems like this measure is just going to perpetuate the downward spiral.

Texas passed a law requiring that all high school students to take physics classes, starting in 2005. But now there will be fewer universities to produce high school physics teachers–and there’s already a shortage of physics teachers.

Florida may be the next state to follow Texas’ example. Texas’ plans are being watched by officials in other states who need to reduce higher-education budgets, and Florida governor Rick Scott has publicly voiced an interest in similar measures. Could your state be next?

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