Making the English Majors Pay More

The state of Florida is considering a new plan to raise money for its public universities: charge students different tuition amounts for different academic majors.

According to an article by Scott Travis in the Sun Sentinel:

A state task force created by Gov. Rick Scott has released its preliminary recommendations on how to revamp higher education. The proposals end the one-size-fits-all way of funding universities.

Highly distinguished universities, such as the University of Florida and Florida State University, could charge more than others. Tuition would be lower for students pursuing degrees most needed for Florida’s job market, including ones in science, technology , engineering and math, collectively known as the STEM fields.

Unsurprisingly, the colleges will pay to keep tuition lower for STEM majors by jacking it up for others. As the article explains, “students in fields such as psychology, political science, anthropology, and performing arts could pay more because they have fewer job prospects in the state.”

This plan seems designed to lure students into STEM majors under the guise of helping them in future employment. Career targeting might be a worthy policy goal, but this idea seems based on a myth.

In fact, it’s not really clear STEM majors are in huge demand at all, either across the country or in Florida. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the United States already produces three times more undergraduate STEM degrees every year than the economy really needs.

It’s true that those STEM majors who actually do secure employment connected to their field generally end up earning more than those anthropology majors in their first jobs, but there’s no great economic need for science majors. In fact, Florida’s economy is largely based on international trade, tourism, and agriculture.

It’s unclear how this proposed policy change would help Florida’s actual citizens. The chief benefit seems to be allowing colleges to raise money without the legislature appropriating additional funds. That might be fiscally useful in the short term, but it fails to address the long-term problem with the state’s public higher education: the state isn’t providing the institutions with the money they need to continue operating.

It also seems puzzling to charge more for people who want to major in psychology, political science, anthropology, and the performing arts. Those classes are, in general, actually cheaper for a university to teach and administer than classes in sciences, engineering, and technology, which generally require expensive materials and laboratories.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer