Subsidizing College Majors

Tuition, Universities

Aspiring engineers might want to consider Florida’s public universities for their education.


The state is considering a three-year tuition freeze for students studying engineering and other “strategic areas” such as science, technology and health care, even as prices for other majors could rise.


The proposal, which follows sharp budget cuts and tuition increases over the last five years, is part of an initiative by Gov. Rick Scott to channel more students into the scientific and technical fields that he believes are most likely to give them jobs when they graduate.


“How many more jobs do you think there are for anthropology in the state?” Scott bluntly asked a Tallahassee business group in 2011. “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can’t get jobs? In anthropology? I don’t.”


Scott’s question reflects the tone of a debate that has gathered steam in part because of high levels of unemployment among recent college graduates. The U.S., some contend, needs to produce a greater number of workers in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.


“If we get more people aware of engineering and STEM fields, that would be a good thing,” Norman Fortenberry, the executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, said of Scott’s approach.


But Debra Humphreys, a vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, thinks subsidizing degrees is a misguided policy that misses a crucial fact about today’s economy.


“Because jobs and entire industries are changing so rapidly, and employers report that innovation is what really drives success, one’s undergraduate major field of study isn’t nearly as important in many fields as the cross-cutting capacities — things like analytic reasoning, effective communication, creativity, complex problem solving — (that) one develops across one’s entire college career,” she said.


Scott’s proposal is part of a growing interest in what is called “differential tuition,” in which students pay different prices for different majors. Differentiated tuitions are not new, but typically, students studying science or medicine – the very majors Scott wants to subsidize – have paid more for their degrees. Just recently, for example, Western Michigan University increased the price of an engineering credit hour by $40.


But Scott is also looking beyond STEM majors. The governor has asked the state’s colleges to design a bachelor’s degree program that would cost no more than $10,000, and all 23 of the schools that offer baccalaureate degrees are busy drawing up plans.


The $10,000 bachelor’s degree isn’t a new idea. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican like Scott, proposed the idea two years ago, saying he was inspired by comments made by Bill Gates. Public universities across the Lone Star State now offer a total of 13 degrees with a $10,000 price tag. A Republican legislator in California recently proposed a pilot program that would give science, technology, engineering and math students a chance at a $10,000 degree by allowing them to begin earning credits toward a state university diploma while still in high school, through a combination of Advanced Placement courses and community college classes.


Scott’s call to subsidize science-related majors comes from a state task force created to reform higher education. Its final report notes that over the last decade, state funding for colleges and universities has failed to keep pace with the rising cost of educating students, but it rejects the notion that increasing funding is the only answer.


“Calls for cost containment are grounded in growing concern that colleges and universities do not spend their money efficiently,” the report said.


Florida’s per-student spending dropped by 26 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Meanwhile, tuition has risen 71 percent over the last four years, though Florida’s colleges remain among the cheapest in the country.


For next year, the universities’ presidents have asked for $118 million more in financing in return for a pledge of no tuition increases.


For task force Chairman Dale Brill, prioritizing areas that are most likely to help students and the state economy makes sense in tight budget years.


“What differential tuition would do is provide a logic-based, return-on-investment-based approach to allocating the scarce resources of an insufficient budget,” Brill said.


Not everyone agrees. Some professors at the University of Florida are signing a petition against the proposal, arguing that it could harm the liberal arts and encourage students to pursue subsidized majors because they are affordable – not because the students are particularly well suited for them.


“The task force’s view of ‘strategic disciplines’ is short-sighted and hardly a vision of ‘reform,’” the petition said. “The punitive differential tuition model will lead not only to a decimation of the liberal arts in Florida. It will also have a destructive impact on the essential and transferrable skills that these disciplines teach.”


Steven Kirn, the executive director of the David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration, argues that the liberal arts teach problem solving and critical thinking – skills that are critical to long-term success.


And although STEM fields are now in demand, Kirn added: “Engineering is a career that, based on my experience, has had big ups and downs over a relatively narrow period of time.”


Other observers have taken a more measured tone, noting that students from low-income families, in particular, might consider an option they would otherwise not have considered.


“It’s kind of a clumsy policy, but it works,” said Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “This might be an incentive for some people who are price sensitive.”