A look into physics programs at liberal arts institutions: Part 1

On May 10, 2019, Gordon College announced changes to its undergraduate physics program, part of a large restructuring of its undergraduate academic offerings. Gordon has announced that it is transitioning from its fairly typical physics degree programming (B.A., B.S., and 3-2 Engineering) to offering a physics track within a new physics and applied sciences major.

As a physics professor at a peer Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) institution, and a graduate of a CCCU physics program (King College in Bristol, Tennessee), I feel both deeply invested in and indebted to physics programs steeped in the Christian liberal arts. I previously have shared some of my views on the question of the nature of physics programs at Christian liberal arts institutions in my article “James Clerk Maxwell: A Model for Twenty-first Century Physics in the Christian Liberal Arts” published in Christian Scholar’s Review (Volume XLV, Number 4, Summer 2016). Maxwell’s views inspire a vision for physics undergraduate education in the spirit of the Christian liberal arts that is essential for a thriving Christian institution.

Understanding the challenges of supporting physics programs in modern CCCU institutions, I’m beginning a series to investigate objective measures of success and expenses of these programs and reflect on the nature of these programs. When we explore the question “what do graduates of physics programs in liberal arts degrees do after graduation?”, and reflect on characteristics of physics programs truly steeped in the liberal arts, as opposed to ones focused on applications of physics, we can broaden public understanding about  the distinctions among and benefits of these programs.

To start this process, I have been investigating metrics of physics degrees across CCCU institutions to better understand the landscape of their physics departments. I used the CCCU institution listing, American Institution of Physics (AIP) Statistics Center

Roster of Physics Departments with Enrollment and Degree Data (for academic years ending 2015, 2016, and 2017, the years for which the data is available for download to a spreadsheet), and the Integrated Post-secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) enrollment data (undergraduate full time equivalent, total number of bachelor's degrees granted, and number of bachelor's degrees granted, again for academic years ending 2015, 2016, and 2017). I collected data for CCCU institutions (for all membership categories) that reported to the AIP information about how many students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics, even if that number was zero, and excluded any institution that did not report their numbers to AIP for all three years. I assumed that an entry in the AIP Statistics database represented any degree nominally given as physics (i.e., that for a given department “Engineering Physics” was included but not “3-2 Engineering”).

The results enable us to begin to understand the current state of physics programs at CCCU schools. Here are some figures:

Figure 1: Number of bachelor's degrees in physics granted during each of the three academic years. This is quite a busy figure, but you can see some areas of growth during this period (such as at Oklahoma Baptist and Messiah) as well as stability (such as at North Park and Gordon).

Figure 2: Total number of bachelor's degrees in physics granted during these three academic years. I’ve chosen the sum over the three-year period in order to see the numbers with less sense of variability. During this period, Gordon had the fifth highest number of physics graduates, right behind Wheaton.

Figure 3: Total number of bachelor's degrees in physics per total undergraduate full-time-equivalent (FTE), 2015-2017. I chose the FTE statistic to understand the relative space the physics major takes up in the context of all undergraduate students at a given institution.

Figure 4: Total number of bachelor's degrees in physics per total number of undergraduate degrees conferred, 2015-2017. This gives a sense of output of the degree program with respect to the rest of the institution. Not surprisingly, this figure strongly correlates to Figure 3.

These figures were illuminating to me, especially to understand the placement of Wheaton’s physics program with respect to its CCCU peers, and in context to the announcements at Gordon. They may be used to estimate some qualities of these programs. For example, Figure 1 can be used to begin to estimate upper-level physics course enrollments, if you know which courses are taught every other year (as is common at small undergraduate institutions) or every year (as we do with upper-level mechanics at Wheaton, but not with electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, or thermodynamics). However, such a sense of course scheduling and thus enrollments is difficult to ascertain without contacting each department directly.

I have more questions about how these numbers compare to comparable non-CCCU schools, especially within the context of endowment. I’ll explore those more in a subsequent post.