Tiered Tuition Threatens Liberal Arts Education

By Katie Mooney

Would you be willing to pay more for a degree in the liberal arts? The scenario may seem strange to most who pay a flat rate per credit hour for college courses, but it could soon be reality for public university students in the state of Florida. In November 2012, the Florida Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform made the recommendation to move away from uniform tuition rates for all degree programs at the twelve state universities. Instead, the commission, appointed by Governor Rick Scott, proposed a differential tuition structure that supports “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand degree programs,” the so-called STEM fields that include engineering, mathematics, science, technology, and globalization. Over the next three years or until unemployment goals are met, tuition increases would be waived for Florida residents in STEM degree programs, with appropriated state funding used to make up the tuition difference. 


The proposal represents one of numerous efforts by universities nationwide to streamline the path from college to career, thereby taking a more “practical” approach to undergraduate education.  Such an approach would be expected from Governor Scott who campaigned on the premise of business-oriented government and has since challenged the twenty-eight Florida community colleges to become more efficient by offering four-year degrees in vocational fields for $10,000. But while job-friendly degrees at a lower cost would seem to attract more students to disciplines of high economic value, looming financial questions remain. 


For example, New York Times journalist Lizette Alvarez suggests that Florida’s “dire state of higher education funding” may make tuition discounts on STEM degrees impossible. She reports that state spending per student has declined 26 percent between 2006-2011 with another $300 million in cuts just last year. These are among the steepest reductions in the country, and considering Governor Scott’s strong opposition to raising taxes, it is unclear how the proposal would be funded. Potential solutions include private-public partnerships, which some Florida schools have already begun to explore. 


The cost conundrum becomes more perplexing when the law of supply and demand is considered. Broken down, the proposal seems to be at odds with this basic economic principle which would suggest raising STEM tuition as long as demand for STEM graduates remains high. Instead, the Florida commission proposes to lower costs for STEM majors at a time when technical qualifications are highly sought after. Phi Beta Kappa Secretary John Churchill questions this strategy in his recent blog, commenting, “Shouldn’t high demand for workers with a certain sort of training create a high demand for that training, which…should drive up the price of that training?” He goes on to point out the irony of offering tuition discounts to those who are most likely to have high-paying jobs upon graduation and may be in the best position to repay student loans. 


More essential to the success of the Florida STEM proposal is the idea of motivation. Would a student interested in English or psychology abruptly take up engineering or computer science for a few thousand dollars in tuition discounts?  John Villasensor, professor of electrical engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles, tackles this question in a recent commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes, “If the substantial financial advantages of graduating with a degree in a strategic discipline aren’t already attracting sufficient numbers of students, throwing an annual tuition discount at them won’t have much effect.” Simply stated, many capable and intelligent students are not interested in STEM fields and may be insulted by measures to persuade them otherwise. 


Finally, the pathway between lower tuition costs and more STEM graduates may be incomplete. As currently outlined, the Florida measure does nothing to prepare younger students for STEM degree programs, many of which require the application of high-level mathematical and scientific principles. George Weaver, retired professor of cognitive psychology at Florida State University and a Phi Beta Kappa member, suggests that in order to have the intended effect “incentives would have to somehow permeate the K-12 system since a student with a poor mathematics background out of high school will not likely have success as an engineering major.” 


But if the commission’s recommendation is not an imminent threat to liberal arts education, it is at least an unsettling reminder of the trend towards market-driven degrees.  In the United States, we have traditionally considered the undergraduate years as a time to develop personal interests and in the process of doing so, consider the direction our lives should take. Tuition-based incentives threaten the level of exploration and flexibility afforded to undergraduates by elevating economics to the forefront of educational decisions, thereby demoting less lucrative areas of study. Worse yet is the prospect of large numbers of STEM graduates, drawn in by lower tuition costs and the promise of a high salary, who lack an intrinsic drive to advance in their chosen field. Instead of purchasing the interest of students, those looking to recruit the next generation of STEM talent might consider approaches that garner authentic appeal, such as faculty mentorship. Whatever the approach, there is certainly more to attracting students than a tuition discount. 

Katie Mooney is a 2012 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Notre Dame where she majored in psychology and pre-medical studies. Notre Dame is home to the Epsilon of Indiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.