The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
STEM Up, Humanities Down in Florida

In October we reported that Florida Governor Rick Scott was mulling a plan to charge lower tuition rates for state university students pursuing degrees in science, tech, engineering and math. This would give students added incentive to choose a major with higher earning potential, potentially giving the state not only more tax revenue but also more workers in industries that are key to its economic growth.

It’s still not clear whether this is an ugly gimmick or the sign of a momentous turning point in higher ed, but either way, recent reports suggest that Florida is moving towards some form of the plan:

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.

Via Meadia has a few reactions to this idea:

1. Anything that makes it easier for low-income people and non-traditional students to learn skills that can improve their personal situation ought to be welcomed. While state tuition policy is likely to get as much wrong as it gets right, the idea of differential tuition has much to recommend it, despite the inevitable complaints from traditional educators. That  said, if the world worked as it should, schools would be charging a premium, not a discount, for students in degree programs that lead to careers with greater earning potential.

2. In this era of tight budgets, the notion that a state university system should be organized around the development of the state’s workforce and business climate is probably unavoidable. On college campuses, “sustainability” usually refers to reducing carbon footprints, but in this case it means keeping costs low, particularly when much of those costs are borne by a state with financial challenges.

3. We hope that any higher ed reform efforts in Florida will include taking an axe to universities’ administrative overhead and bureaucratic costs.

4. We’re ultimately troubled by the disrespect for the humanities implied in plans like this. Making it harder for low-income students to dedicate themselves to the study of the best that civilization has produced is not the direction that social policy ought to be taking us. But it should be taken as a sign for those who teach non-STEM subjects that we may need to rethink both how and what we teach, the better to rebuild a weakening public consensus that our disciplines are “worth it” from an economic development or any other point of view.

Published on December 11, 2012 3:17 pm