Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Should students pay more for 'useless' majors?

By Elizabeth McCausland


There has been a lot of discussion in U.S. higher education blogs about Florida Governor Rick Scott's proposal to freeze tuition at the state's colleges and universities for majors with high job-market demand—mainly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and health fields—while increasing it in others. The Florida proposal aims to address both the shortage of skilled workers in some of these fields and the desire that students, their families and taxpayers have to see a return on their increasingly expensive investment in post-secondary education. There are a number of objections to Scott's approach, however.

How would the state pay for differential tuition?


This model bucks the trend of differential tuition: some institutions are charging more for STEM majors, which are expensive to offer, assuming that higher salaries in these fields will allow students to afford larger loans. At other schools, students in less-expensive fields such as humanities and social sciences essentially subsidize their STEM-major peers. How will Florida fund a tuition freeze in expensive technical fields, especially at a time when the state has been slashing spending on post-secondary education?

How do we measure the value of education?


The Florida proposal makes labour-market demand and high future earnings the measures of a major's value. But there are others. Lower-paying majors, such as those in social services and education, often have a high social value: the state needs special education teachers as well as petroleum engineers. Should we give students a tuition break for choosing these fields, even at the expense of their future earnings? Many of these fields contribute to a strong economy. And what about the personal value of choosing to study and work at something you love?

Liberal arts majors do just fine


Under the Florida proposal, graduates in humanities and social sciences fields deemed lacking in “strategic value” would pay higher tuition. But studies repeatedly show that while these students may have a harder time finding work than their peers in engineering, and be paid less, over the longer term their employment rates are comparable and their salaries outpace the U.S. median. Moreover, such majors do well in providing the communication and critical thinking skills that top lists of what employers are looking for. But colleges and universities could do a lot more to help students in these fields gain work experience and sell their “soft skills” to employers so they get a better salary return on their post-secondary investment.

If you want more STEM majors, you need to start earlier


Many students entering college and university are not prepared for advanced work in science and mathematics. Even if tuition were free, they would not be able to major in engineering or statistics. If we want more STEM graduates in North America (and I think we do), we need governments, policy makers, and educators to improve elementary and secondary education in these fields. Students need to be not just prepared but inspired to undertake advanced study.

Elizabeth McCausland is the Education Council Chair at Douglas College.

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