Thursday, November 01, 2012
Whiskey, Cigarettes, and Jane Austen
I’ll admit, I hadn’t thought of that.
I’ve heard proposals about charging different tuition for different majors before. The usual argument is that certain courses of study are much more expensive for colleges to offer, so the students who reap the benefit of the more expensive courses should be asked to pay at least some of the extra cost. Lab fees are the classic example: it’s standard procedure at many colleges to tack on a surcharge for lab science or studio art classes to help cover the cost of the consumables the students use. Differential tuition is usually presented as lab fees applied to an entire course of study.
But this is new.
Apparently, Florida is considering tying tuition levels to how badly the state wants people to major in something. So instead of tacking a lab fee onto a biology class, a college would run biology at a relative discount, and charge more for, say, upper-level English or philosophy. The idea is to treat colleges as the personnel offices of the new economy, and to use tuition pricing as a not-very-subtle signal to students as to what they should study. If you want to do something “useful,” the state will help you; if you want to be a starving artist, do it on your own dime and at your own risk.
Predictably enough, English professors across the internet are aghast, but that’s easy to write off as self-interest. I’m more intrigued at what a move like that would actually entail.
First, and most basically, it decouples cost from revenue. For a college, it’s cheaper to run a simple classroom course than it is to run something with a lab. A history class, say, only requires one instructor and one classroom. A bio class requires an instructor and a lab technician, and it requires a room with specialized equipment and far more square footage per student. That’s why we charge lab fees.
But if you reverse the lab fee model and treat colleges as personnel offices, then the entire economic underpinning of the college has to change.
For the last forty years or so, the uninterrupted trend in public higher education financing has been a cost shift from the state to the student. (If so inclined, you can partially substitute “federal government” for “student,” to the extent that Pell grants come into play.) In theory, it’s possible for that to be neutral in its impact, if you assume a constant total. But enrollments fluctuate, even as state support flatlines or drops. Colleges have adapted by increasing tuition and fees far more quickly than overall costs. Even at many community colleges, direct student payments are a larger share of the budget at this point than state subsidies are. Getting prices closer to costs has been the only way to continue to function as subsidies have declined.
The proposal to levy a sort of sin tax on the liberal arts, like on whiskey and cigarettes, would upend this model. If the sin tax “worked,” and steered more students away from English and into STEM, then a college would quickly fall behind in meeting its budget as students shifted from the profit centers to the loss centers. (That’s part of the argument for sin taxes; if they’re high enough, they deter sin. When cigarettes get expensive enough, fewer teenagers start smoking.) There are only two ways to make this work:
1. Raise the cost of the “undesired” programs, but don’t cut the cost of the “desired” ones.
2. Radically increase operating subsidies, and commit to the new, higher levels and a realistic rate of increase for the foreseeable future.
The former strikes me as self-defeating, and the latter as implausible (though desirable).
Leaving aside the academic merits of the proposal -- the interwebs have eviscerated those with predictable vigor -- it’s a complete non-starter economically unless the state is willing to kick in far more money, basically until the end of time. When you decouple costs from revenues, you’d better make up those costs someplace else. If you don’t, like California doesn’t, then you wind up cutting services to the point of turning away hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom will wind up going instead to more expensive for-profits.
Governor Scott, personnel offices are not self-supporting. They’re overhead. If you remake colleges into personnel offices, you have to redo the funding accordingly. Unless you’re willing to accept the increased costs that colleges would face as new overhead for the state, kill this proposal dead. And leave Jane Austen alone.
Curious to understand how this would (not) work.
By the way, are we also supposing that all of these new STEM majors will arrive at college having been adequately prepared by their k-12 school systems to jump right in to a STEM sequence? Or are we now going to take folks who didn't get a solid math education in school, maybe never really wanted to be STEM students in the first place, and ramp up developmental/remedial programs for them, once they get to college and are more or less forced into STEM? Since developmental sequences significantly add to the length of time it takes to graduate, especially in a structured STEM program where you can't do class B until you do well in class A, will FL be significantly increasing the length of time it offers students tuition support? Perhaps making up for the recent cut in number of semesters during which a student can get Pell grants?
Dumb idea, all the way around. And no, I am not a lit professor.
That said: it is entirely untrue that those who graduate with an English major are unemployable. Further, it's untrue that the only thing that one can do with an English major is teach. It's frustrating to me that people believe that an English major is less employable than, say, a math major, when, in fact *the exact opposite is true.*
One thing an English major would know is how to spell "rigorous."
And didn't _Academically Adrift_ suggest that traditional liberal arts majors (such as English) were in fact more rigorous than some of the more vocational majors? [if we accept that CLA performance is correlated with rigor.]
In short: don't kill the Liberal Arts goose laying the golden eggs! (I recognize this is a craven and materialistic argument to sustain the liberal arts curriculum, but I'm not above using a little rhetorical jujitsu to challenge the "personnel center" model of higher ed.)
(Channeling the stereotypical STEM undergrad) Honestly, we don't have time. The lit class is full of people who spend time pondering airy things that have no practical application. Similar ruminations on our part get in the way of us memorizing the 500 reactions we have to know for our next O-chem midterm. It would be nice to have the mental bandwidth to spend on that stuff but honestly, it's not going to get us better grades in our majors classes nor will it help us get internships or jobs when we graduate. So why would I spend time in those classes when I can spend more time at my job at Costco and have fewer loans next semester? I may regret this later in life but right now, I'm sick of eating ramen so that I can get new tires for my car and no amount of Jane Austen will make that better. (This is the approach most humanities majors take towards their Science/Math gen ed requirement by the by so it's not just the science majors who blow off the stuff they feel gets in the way or isn't fun).
Most majors by themselves don't lead to employment. What distinguishes science and engineering majors from others is that those students have the opportunity to learn skills during college that are directly valuable to employers and usually get internships or research experience that show that the student can do something valuable. This creates a network students can tap to get references and jobs.
If Florida really wants their students to be employed after graduation irrespective of their major, they should drop the gen ed requirement by half and allow students to use internships and work sub in for the units that were cut. Money from those units would go towards funding the internship and career center on campus. This would have the net result of providing more funding to help create connections with industry (which could lead to opportunities for philanthropy), help students be "employment ready" when leaving college and let students use the work / internships they need to do to be employable to be part of the college credit that counts towards graduation. Employment is about networking and connections. Your major is part of that only in the sense that it determines what parties you go to, what labs you work in, and who you know.
Second, I can see how it would cost more to educate students in STEM, and that thus the total amount of funding will have to increase if we increase the number of people choosing those fields. I don't know that that's an argument against doing it though. Psychologically, this will work best at modifying behavior (i.e. getting people to major in appropriate fields) if it is perceived as a sin tax not a virtue subsidy- that is, "desired" fields stay the same price (or go up), "undesired" fields go up (or go up more).
Of course, preparing students for jobs at all is a fools errand if graduates have plenty of skills, there are just too blasted many of them to hire in an economy where worker efficiency increases dramatically over time, healthcare costs and other expenses associated with expanding payroll are ever increasing, and there appear to be no limit to the number of hours/week people will work themselves to the bone, just thankful to have a paycheck with.
Really, unemployment isn't high because of insufficient people in STEM. And anyone who tells you otherwise is ill-informed, or possibly maliciously trying to keep the surplus energy for critical thinking created by STEM training engaged in analyzing anything but the underpinnings of our economic system.
This looks like the first step in a race to the bottom.
When my son was a few years out of a liberal arts college and freshly out of a job after the dot-com bust, I recall suggesting that bright young American college graduates should consider seeking work overseas.
Now it looks like the recommendation should be young American high-school graduates should move overseas, first to complete their education (assuming any of them can actually get into a foreign university with a U.S. high-school diploma) and then to build their adult lives.
What is saddest about proposals like this is that those involved seem unaware that most of the great researchers were broadly educated and draw on creativity and critical thinking skills fed by music and literature.
The economic argument is also rather strange because it is already the case that fees for most STEM classes are effectively low and subsidized by students majoring in intrinsically less expensive programs. They are also subsidized by federal funds that pay the vast majority of the costs of various labs involved in graduate education in STEM.
The existing flat-rate fees already do what this scheme proposes, and I am not even considering the ratio of starting salary to 4-year degree costs.
But there I am, playing their silly game when the real problems with STEM education are that (1) even interested students come out of high school poorly prepared in mathematics and the critical reading skills needed to solve problems; (2) other majors where employers value quantitative skills are much easier and pay as much or more than typical STEM jobs; (3) the actual complaint is not about the number of engineering grads, but rather about the number of top-quality grads willing to work for a specific salary.
There. Fixed that for you. :-(