More STEM Majors Won’t Solve Higher Education’s Problems

Charge art-history majors more for their degrees than biology students? Yes, according to the new draft proposal of Gov. Rick Scott’s Florida Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform. The panel proposes to keep tuition flat for degrees in “strategic areas of emphasis,” which include science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields; health professions; “high demand” education fields; and (oddly) globalization; while raising it in all other areas.

This has a certain logic to it: Why waste taxpayer dollars subsidizing students who study “useless” subjects in college, like philosophy or history? Why not encourage them to go into practical fields, like science and engineering? But this proposal is misguided on multiple levels.

First, the folks pushing STEM degrees clearly haven’t talked to a lot of biology majors. Or chemists. Sure, everyone knows the petroleum engineers are raking it in. But even after Ph.D.’s, many STEM folks are stuck in postdoc hell, and midcareer, the median salary of a biology major is more than $13,000 a year less than her counterpart in political science. Heck, she even comes in almost $4,000 behind the much-maligned film major. Besides, if this is about encouraging students to go into—and I quote—“high-skill, high-demand, high-wage degrees (market determined),” why give the subsidy to STEM? Why not give it to finance majors ($23,500 above the poor biologists) or economists (almost $34,000 above)?

Second, there’s no reason to think this would help Florida economically. If the state wants to align higher education with the needs of business, it should take a look at surveys of employers, who indicate, year after year, that what they most want from college grads is “the ability to effectively communicate” and “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills”—classic hallmarks of a liberal arts education. And studies like Academically Adrift show that it’s the humanities and social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, that lead to measurable improvements in critical thinking.

The task force also attempts to make the state higher-education system align more closely with metrics of success identified by Complete College America, whose platform has been embraced by the National Governors Association. As the name suggests, these are heavily tilted toward increasing retention and graduation.

Of course, if you reward an outcome, you do get more of it. And if governments decide they’re rewarding completion, what they’re going to get is completion—colleges shoving students on through, whether they’ve learned anything or not. Having more college graduates with degrees that mean less is hardly going to help Florida or any other state.

If Florida wants to do something that will have returns in the long run, it should be taking a much different approach. It needs to be making college more rigorous, not demanding that more students graduate no matter what. As time-use studies have shown, full-time college students average only 27 hours a week on classes and studying, a 50-percent drop from 40 years before. And grade inflation means that 43 percent of those students will receive A’s, which means they have less incentive to work hard in their classes.

Florida should also ignore the old canard that what we desperately need is more scientists. Sure, a STEM program can provide an outstanding education, and it’s hard not to admire STEM’s reputation for rigor. But students also learn communication and critical thinking through a good old-fashioned liberal-arts education of the sort that has become a bugbear for politicians.

To make rigor possible, Florida needs to provide plenty of remedial support, via community colleges, for students who aren’t ready to handle a challenging curriculum after high school. States like Connecticut are simply declaring that students should enter college ready for college-level work, and ending remedial classes at community colleges. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and declaring that students should complete their associate’s degrees in two years whether or not they arrive at college literate or numerate is the real waste of taxpayer dollars.

Finally, Florida and other states need to support a professoriate with the autonomy and security to keep standards high. As any casual reader of the Chronicle forums knows, all too often administrators pressure faculty to pass students or excuse them from cheating in the name of retention. At least tenured and tenure-track faculty have the job security to resist such inappropriate demands. But in a higher-education system  where two-thirds of faculty are not tenure track and earn a median of $2,700 a class, and where faculty are rewarded based on student evaluations that are significantly correlated with grades, how many are in a position to push back?

But this is not the direction that Florida is going. Governor Scott has argued for greater reliance on student evaluations while cutting $300-million from Florida’s universities this year alone, and has announced that he’s looking to Texas as a model for the future. In an environment like this, giving a discount to STEM majors isn’t going to make one thin dime of difference.

Elizabeth Popp Berman is assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany.

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