With Georgia’s tendency of late to look south to Florida for education ideas, we may see some discussion this year in the Legislature on the Sunshine State’s latest brainchild: Incentivize students to become engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts by discounting tuition in those areas of study. Dissuade students from becoming anthropologists, poets and theater majors by charging full tuition for those degrees.
“Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott in a speech last year.
I once was part of an interesting discussion with Emory President James Wagner — he was meeting with the AJC editorial board — on whether tuition should be calibrated so that an education major, for instance, pays less than an engineering major, whose education costs colleges more to provide. The issue came up during a broader discussion about rising college costs and possible solutions.
(Here is a good essay on this issue by Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University. If you read it, be sure to read the second comment in response to Vedder’s essay.)
In fact, a few universities already levy fees on students in programs that cost more to operate. In a 2011 survey, the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute found that 143 public universities now impose differential tuition based on major and, in some cases, on year of enrollment in the program.
According to the survey:
The most common majors for which differential tuition charges occur are business, engineering, and nursing. The CHERI research assistants also collected data from institutional web pages on the magnitudes of the differential tuition charges. Examples in 2010-2011 include a $75 per engineering course fee at the University of Maine (a 9.4% increase over the in-state tuition of $801 for a three credit course) and a $460 per semester nursing program fee at the University of Kentucky (a 10.7% increase over the in-state lower-division semester tuition of $4,305).
But the Florida plan goes in the opposite direction, charging engineering majors less to earn their degrees because the state wants more STEM graduates.
To nudge students toward job-friendly degrees, the governor’s task force on higher education suggested recently that university tuition rates be frozen for three years for majors in “strategic areas,” which would vary depending on supply and demand. An undergraduate student would pay less for a degree in engineering or biotechnology — whose classes are among the most expensive for universities — than for a degree in history or psychology. State financing, which has dropped drastically in the past five years, would be expected to make up the tuition gap.
Dale A. Brill, the chairman of the governor’s task force and a “liberal arts guy,” said universities needed to be realistic. Generous state financing is no longer an option, at least not in Florida. Universities, he said, need to be practical about the value of their degrees at a time when well-paying jobs are scarce, a position taken by a growing number of institutions and one that underscores the latest philosophical divide over education. “The higher education system needs to evolve with the economy,” said Mr. Brill, the president of the Florida Chamber Foundation. “People pay taxes expecting that the public good will be served to the greatest degree possible. We call that a return on investment.”
Florida’s new Senate president, Don Gaetz, a Republican, agrees. He has said he wants “to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy.”
Science, technology, engineering and math — the fields collectively known as STEM — are all the rage these days. Florida state leaders are so eager for more STEM students that they may even create discounted college tuition for students who pursue those fields. In an economy that is still struggling to regain its footing, boosting STEM is seen by many as a path to jobs.
Except … what if it isn’t? As STEM has become an education buzzword in recent years, a steady stream of research has emerged that challenges the notion of STEM as an economic elixir. In some STEM careers, the employment picture is downright lousy. “Record Unemployment Among Chemists in 2011,” screamed the March headline in Science magazine’s Careers Blog. A headline from June: “What We Need is More Jobs for Scientists.”
Unemployment in STEM fields is still well below the general population (and slightly below college graduates in general). That “record” unemployment for chemists, for example, was 4.6 percent, compared to overall U.S. unemployment at that time of 8.8 percent.
Nevertheless, the glut of workers in some STEM areas (resulting in flat wages, and STEM grads forced to take jobs in non-STEM fields) directly contradicts the widely held view that the United States — and Florida — suffer from a critical shortage of qualified STEM graduates. The truth, many experts say, is more complicated.
“In a general sense, science and innovation do create jobs and drive growth,” said Elizabeth Popp Berman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Albany whose book Creating the Market University examines the history of university research and its economic impact. “As a nation, having lots of scientists and people inventing stuff is good for us.”
But that doesn’t mean all STEM graduates have a guaranteed job, Berman stressed. The STEM employment picture, Berman said, is “very mixed” and largely dependent upon a student’s particular major. Petroleum engineering majors are doing very well these days; biologists and chemists are not.
Some studies, meanwhile, have challenged the notion of an overall STEM worker shortage — instead finding that the United States is producing vastly more STEM graduates than there are STEM jobs awaiting them. As science organizations and corporations continue to sound the STEM shortage alarm, critics charge that these groups are motivated by self-interest — tech companies, for example, have claimed a shortage of trained workers even as they laid off thousands of U.S. employees, and moved those jobs to low-wage developing countries.
“It’s a way for them to sort of excuse why they’re shifting so much work offshore,” said Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, who has testified before Congress on the need to tighten the legal loopholes that allow such maneuvers.
What’s interesting to me is that the Florida plan contradicts what experts keep saying: Businesses want employees who can think, write and discern, skills often honed by a liberal arts degree. (A friend in advertising told me once that if you want a strong writer with sharp reasoning skills, hire a philosophy major.)
Writing in Forbes, Cornell President and cardiologist David Skorton and Vice President for University Relations Glenn Altschuler said:
The liberal arts, moreover, also serves as a preferred pathway to rewarding and remunerative careers. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical schools accepted 43 percent of the biological sciences majors, 47 percent of physical sciences majors, 51 percent of humanities majors, and 45 percent of social sciences majors who applied in 2010. “Admission committee members know that medical students can develop the essential skills of acquiring, synthesizing, applying and communicating information through a wide variety of academic disciplines,” the AAMC states.
The American Bar Association agrees: “The ABA does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education. Students are admitted to law school from almost every academic discipline.” A study by a Chicago State University professor bears this out: the top ten majors with the highest acceptance rates for law school include philosophy, anthropology, history and English. Both organizations advise prospective applicants to choose majors that interest and challenge them, work hard for excellent grades, develop their research and writing skills and make the most of the opportunities that come their way
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog