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Paying Tuition by Degrees

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 3, 2016

Should College Tuition be Based on What a Student Studies?

A growing number of elected officials want to lure more students into STEM fields with economic incentives—tuition breaks or subsidies for students studying science, technology, engineering and math. And that could mean punishing humanities majors, and diminishing humanities departments.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin recently declared that students majoring in French literature shouldn’t get any public funding for their college education. A New York Times story by Patricia Cohen quotes Bevin as saying people are free to study French literature, but “they’re not going to get subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be.”

North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory says he doesn’t want any public subsidies for “gender studies.” Presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio has called for more welders and fewer philosophers, and questioned the value of student loans “to study, you know…Roman history? Are there any Romans here?”

Florida Governor Rick Scott has scoffed at anthropology, and a Florida state senator complained about degrees in psychology and political science  “that don’t mean much.” A Florida task force has recommended that public universities charge more for “non-strategic majors,” such as history and English.   

Cohen reports at least 15 states are offering some type of bonuses for certain high demand STEM degrees that are perceived as aligned with job market needs. 

A Hechinger report story by John Marcus says between 2007 and 2012, four year institutions across the country have been dropping liberal arts courses and reducing the number of departments offering art history, English, languages, literature, religion and music.  The Academy of Arts and Sciences reports humanities degrees have declined in recent years, and that the share of bachelor’s degrees in humanities disciplines in 2013, a little over 10 percent, was less than one third of the share of degrees awarded in the natural, social and behavioral sciences that year.

Tuition manipulation by major isn’t new, though before 1980 it was almost unknown. In earlier experiments, students whose majors suggested higher incomes after graduation were charged more.  Kevin Stange from the University of Michigan studied  50 universities that charged higher fees between 2000 and 2008 for nursing, engineering and business majors, on the theory that those degrees had higher economic value.  Degrees in engineering and business dropped within three years of the new price differentials, though nursing degrees gained slightly. Dr. Stange concluded price differential doesn’t seem to be a path for changing the composition of the work force. A Cornell study found that 29 percent of public colleges had differential tuition rates in 2010-11, though some increased costs were the result of lab costs or public funding cuts.

Should higher education emphasize to enriching lives and the quality of citizenship or the demands of the job market? While conservative commentators and officials have been most vocal questioning the value of liberal arts studies, the Times story notes Obama administration has contributed to the debate by proposing that the nation’s 7,000 colleges and universities should compile data on earnings of graduates in all majors they offer in addition to statistics on graduation rates and student debt. Some studies indicate a newly minted engineer might start out at $65.000 a year, about $20,000 more than a new humanities graduate.

Academics in the humanities have pushed back, noting surveys show that businesses want critical thinking, creativity, empathy and collaborative capacities in their employees. The Military Academy at West Point continues to emphasize humanities. The Times story quotes Jeffrey N. Peters, who teaches French literature at the University of Kentucky, as saying students like Governor Bevin, who graduated from the Liberal Arts university Washington and Lee with a Bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian studies, draw on  experiences with language, literature and culture  to begin successful careers in business, international relations and public service. Contributors to the PlosOne Neuroanthropology blog touted the value of anthropology in engineering, business, science, and health care, a field in which Rick Scott experienced economic success before becoming governor.    


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