Among the recommendations of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s blue ribbon panel on state higher education reform is a proposal to charge lower tuition to majors deemed of strategic importance to the state’s economic growth (see recommendation 2 under “Funding,” page 22). In practice, this would mean a tuition discount for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields. By discounting the tuition cost of such majors, the panel argues, the state can ensure that its investment in higher education has the highest payoff.
As Scott said, “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”
As dean of a college of liberal arts and sciences, my first reaction to this proposal should probably have been horror at the casual dismissal of the humanities and social sciences as “non-strategic” and, by inference, worthless. Instead, perhaps since I spend so much time wrestling with the college’s budget instead of thinking about intellectual matters, what first struck me was how odd the economics of this proposal are.
Indeed, we already offer an enormous tuition discount to students to encourage them to major in STEM fields. Every undergraduate at UConn pays the same tuition, even though the cost of training a Philosophy or English major is a fraction of the cost of preparing a Physics or Engineering student. This inevitably means that the English majors – whose parents, after all, pay the same taxes as everyone else – receive a smaller share of the state’s subsidy of UConn’s operations than the science and engineering majors do.
In addition to this state subsidy, there are market incentives in place to encourage students to pursue certain STEM degrees. As this Wall Street Journal table shows, students who major in Engineering, Physics, and Math have both relatively high starting salaries and relatively high mid-career salaries compared to other majors. These higher salaries represent the market’s view of the value in exchange of these degrees, and the simplest explanation of this view is that such degrees are relatively scarce among all college graduates.
At the same time, the Wall Street Journal table shows that not all science majors pay off to the same extent. Economics, a social science, is at the top of the salary scale, while Chemistry and Geology rank below Philosophy in mid-career median salaries. Biology, one of our most popular majors, and a very expensive degree to offer, accounts for a huge number of science degrees. The relative abundance of people with Biology degrees may well account for the fact that its mid-career salary comes in below Art History and Film, and is essentially tied with English.
Increasing the subsidy we already offer to STEM degrees may produce more scientists and engineers, though I wonder how much we can expect from a graduate who chose a particular major because it was a little cheaper in tuition. More subsidies will further distort the cost structure of higher education, so that students seeking degrees outside of STEM will spend an even greater share of their tuition dollars subsidizing expensive engineering and science courses. And the great irony of this is that, if we’re successful, the main effect will be to drive down those high salaries that some STEM majors command in the market!
Our current flat tuition model works because we count on our student body to consist of a mix of science and non-science majors. If we’re going to start valuing one major over another in economic terms, then let’s go all the way and tie tuition to the market – different tuition rates for different majors, based on supply and demand. At UConn, that would mean you could get an English or History degree for much less than a degree in Biology. To anyone reading the Wall Street Journal’s table, that will seem like a very good deal indeed.