Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.