In a move to increase the number of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors, a task force created by Florida Gov. Rick Scott recommended that tuition be kept lower for certain majors. Despite the benevolent intentions of the governor’s team, this proposal is a poor way to incite interest in the sciences. The task force specifically recommends that tuition be lower for “strategic areas of emphasis.” This term is defined by the legislature and considers STEM and health-related majors as focus areas. Over the next three years, students enrolled in these majors will not face tuition increases. If there is lost revenue from stable tuition rates, the tuition for students in majors like political science, anthropology and psychology will increase.
The trend of differential tuitions at universities began in the ‘80s, and the number of institutions doing so has swiftly increased over the past two decades. According to a study from the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, 143 universities charge some form of differential tuition. Of these 143, 29 percent are bachelor’s institutions and 41 percent are doctoral institutions. The University of Maine, for example, charges an additional $75 for each engineering course. Another study by the Advisory Board Company found that roughly one-third of public research universities use some form of differential pricing to make their business and engineering programs more expensive. This analysis considered the additional program and equipment fees as a de facto higher tuition. On average, business programs have tuition 20-25 percent higher than the base rate, and engineering 25-30 percent higher. Despite this pricing, the number of STEM graduates has remained steady over the past 30 years.
Florida, then, would be bucking the trend by making engineering programs cheaper than other majors. This is why this proposal is quite puzzling. Part of the reason universities charge higher tuitions for these majors is because they are in higher demand. Students flock to these majors knowing they will receive a job with a high salary once they graduate. The median starting salary in the U.S. for engineers is $58,581, compared to $42,569 for all graduates. And the unemployment rate for engineers is under 2 percent, compared to 7.9 percent for other occupations. If job prospects for these majors were poor, it might make sense to lower tuition rates. For the most part, though, these students will graduate with well-paying jobs and be able to pay off student loans.
The state is wrong to subsidize tuitions based on job market needs. As economist Alex Tabarrok explains, wages already reflect their needs. Engineer salaries are high because firms highly demand them. Tuition rates are not the reason students do not become STEM majors, but rather it is a lack of desire to study STEM fields. A study by the Business-Higher Education Forum in 2011 showed that only 17 percent of high school seniors were both proficient in math and interested in STEM fields. This corresponds closely with the 16 percent of all college graduates who major in these programs.
Making tuition lower will not motivate students who don’t like math to suddenly become physicists or engineers. Nor should we encourage students who would perform better in other majors to enter the STEM fields unmotivated and unprepared. To resolve the problem of a lack of STEM graduates, the public education system needs to be overhauled to adequately teach students in science and math. For example, students with an interest in these fields should be integrated into the workforce as soon as possible with an apprenticeship-type program.
At UCSD, for example, the Society of Women Engineers hosts an event where high school girls can tour engineering labs and become familiar with the engineering career. This teaches students to enjoy math and science early and removes any stigma these subjects may have.
While the goal of increasing STEM graduates is noble, altering tuition rates are an ineffective means to do so. No dance major will suddenly become interested in computer science because the degree is cheaper. Trying to coordinate tuition rates with the market simply will not compensate for the failure of the public education system. We should be vigilant against any palliatives like this and instead work towards comprehensive school reform in order to actually increase the number of STEM students.