Tuition Trend Alert: Would You Switch Majors to Cut College Costs?
February 28, 2013

Florida Governor Rick Scott has ruffled quite a few academic feathers with his suggestion that students majoring in STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) be offered lower tuition than those for other majors that are less in-need. Because Florida – and the US at large – is suffering from a lack of these critical skill graduates, the governor’s proposal is intended to attract more students to these challenging majors to address job needs now and in the coming years. If you had the option to matriculate for less moolah, would you consider a major change to a high need field such as engineering or technology?

Recent years’ experience indicates that college costs can play a factor in choice of major, at least when it comes to rate hikes. Beginning in 2004, due to increased cost of providing the programs, the University of Texas at Austin began charging engineering students higher tuition. Engineering students pay 9% more than liberal arts majors to matriculate at UT. The result? A drop in enrollment in their engineering program.

University of Michigan public policy professor Kevin Stange did a study on differential tuition and enrollment declines. His results showed that for every $1,000 in increased tuition, 5% fewer students would engage in the program. Stange said, “When institutions start charging more for engineering and business, we do see a decline in the number of students pursuing those degrees.” But does this phenomena work in the other direction as well? Stange doesn’t think so, but perhaps Florida will be the test case for the rest of the nation – desperately in need of more STEM majors – to watch closely.

Governor Scott’s approach of tuition discounts seems a reasonable strategy to address a critical need, but many liberal arts professors are outraged. The governor’s initial proposal is to freeze STEM program tuition while allowing other program costs to experience normal rates of increase. A protest petition in response to this proposal has been started by defenders of liberal arts programs stating:

The state, the task force argues, “should move away from uniform tuition rates … among all degree programs within a university.” Programs with no tuition increase would be those deemed “high skill, high demand, and high wage.” Liberal arts and social science topics (English, History, Political Science, Psychology, etc.) would cost students more, on the assumption that no one with such a degree has high skills, would ever be in high demand, and would ever earn a high wage, however “high” is defined.

In fact, left alone, all tuition rates would rise, so it’s not as if liberal arts majors would pay less in any case, so why the antipathy toward a price freeze for in-need majors? Is this simply a case of a faction crying “it’s not fair” even though tweaks to tuition for engineers have no effect on their chosen program of study? Or is tuition disparity truly unjust?

If the concept of a tuition discount is so upsetting, it would be easy enough to affect the same result by offering enhanced student aid in the form of grants or forgivable loans for STEM majors. Would this cause a similar furor? When grants and many other forms of student financial aid are handed out, it is based on the need of the student. Would it be such a terrible notion for us to consider the needs of our state and nation when it comes to awarding grants paid for by these entities?

It may take a significant discount in college costs to persuade an English or history major to tackle a course of study that is highly rigorous, but with increased awareness of the career opportunities and decreased risk of unemployment for STEM majors, perhaps more students would warm to the idea of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Florida’s foray into tuition differentiation is certainly worth watching.

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