Physics Departments at Small Colleges Are Under Pressure — Here’s How to Fight Back

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Physics Departments at Small Colleges Are Under Pressure — Here’s How to Fight Back


Matthew Write, Associate Professor, Department Chair, Physics, Adelphi University

Matthew Wright. Photo courtesy of SPS National.As a lower-level physics student, I remember having one of those ideas that was both exciting and wildly naïve—I wanted to build a probe that would look for life on Europa. I even had a cute, hand-drawn schematic of a lander, a depth sounder, and fish under the ice. I walked into two separate physics professors’ offices on a random afternoon and started talking about how I thought this would be an interesting research project. I ultimately focused on something else, but I fondly remember how I was able to interact with and connect to the faculty at a small college. The professors I approached took my idea seriously and helped me think about my ideas more deeply.

This was one of my motivating factors for actively pursuing a faculty job at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), where I knew I could provide students with opportunities to receive enhanced mentorship and conduct undergraduate research, as well as give students the time to develop at their own pace. I wanted to be there for my lower-level students in the exact same way that my professors were there for me.

Colleges and universities have been under continuing pressure to make operations more efficient, increase revenue, and keep tuition low. This process has been accelerated by million-dollar losses in revenue due to the effects of COVID-19. Institutions are also facing reduced revenue from the coming enrollment cliff in 2026, as discussed in the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Demographic Cliff: 5 Findings From New Projections of High-School Graduates.” The result is that revenue due to tuition is likely going to be at low levels for the next 10 years.

Since I started working as a professor in 2012, the minimum number of seats in a given class has gone from six to ten at my university.* Classes that had no problem running in 2012 are now in jeopardy of not being offered. According to a recent AIP report, “Size of Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Programs,” the average number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in a given program is 6.1. This roughly indicates how many students can be found in a typical upper-level physics class such as quantum mechanics. With that number it’s possible to understand why more and more upper-level classes will not be offered because of low enrollment.

Lowering the number of physics courses that can run in a particular year can have a direct effect on the operations of a department. In some cases, departments will be required to consolidate their courses from being offered every year to every other year. In other cases, faculty will be required to teach required courses as tutorials or independent studies to ensure that students graduate on time. While this technically solves the problem for the students, it does so at great strain to the faculty. It often requires faculty to teach higher-level classes for free or at heavy discounts, while still maintaining a full load of lower-level courses and service classes. This hidden overtime is a substantial burden for physics faculty at PUIs and can take time away from recruiting new students, developing new programs, and mentoring students to keep retention high.

In terms of dollars and cents, the added expenses of funding upper-level teaching labs and extra faculty may make it appear favorable to discontinue physics departments altogether. Historically, physics is often one of those departments that may disappear when times are rough, as was discussed in the 2013 Inside Higher Ed article “Small Ain’t All.” As a physics chair the fact that a couple of bad years in a row could spell disaster for a department is always in the back of my mind. The thing I find most distressing is that a good department with moderate enrollment numbers may not be allowed to try to recover from sudden enrollment declines due to COVID-19, the enrollment cliff, changes in student interests, or faculty turnover.
But there is hope out there. Here are some ideas for fighting back:

· Develop career-focused pathways.
Our department is working with regional businesses and Brookhaven National Lab to develop career-focused pathways that we can market to incoming high school students.

· Develop pre-engineering pathways.
We are working with regional universities that have world-class engineering programs to develop degree pathways from an undergraduate degree in physics to graduate degrees in physics, materials science, or engineering.

· Do outreach relentlessly.
We are working with our admissions office to scale up our Lab for Kids outreach event, which was named one of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine’s 2020 Inspiring Programs in STEM, so that it can be done remotely and with multiple schools. Every student reached is a win for the community.

· Promote diversity.
National programs led by physics professional societies, such as STEP-UP and TEAM-UP, are helping departments attract students from diverse backgrounds. Our students came to the faculty asking to develop diversity-themed events and discussions. We encouraged them! Our department has created a department-level task force of students, staff, and faculty to work on such topics. We participated in the TEAM-UP workshop this January.

It’s hard to look at the smaller classes caused by COVID-19 without concern. But this is a necessary market correction—the price of college is way out of hand across the board. It will force the community to rethink and reevaluate how we do business. We need to continue to evolve and grow with the times to keep up. 

* Adelphi University has recently developed a tiered approach to class minimums. The cap for 100 and 200 levels is 12, whereas the cap for 400-level classes is eight. 

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