Artists, philosophers and historians might have reason to be wary of a Florida initiative that is garnering the attention of higher education officials across Michigan.
A higher education reform task force commissioned by Florida Gov. Rick Scott is suggesting lower college tuition for “high-demand” degrees, many of which involve the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields. Scott has identified science and technology as the future of Florida’s economy and, consequently, two fields in which students can readily find jobs.
In a 2011 interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Scott seemed to doubt the need for more liberal arts majors.
“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so,” Scott said.
The initiative set off a national dialogue about the role of public higher education institutions, and, more pointedly, whether or not some degrees are better investments for taxpayers. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has mulled similar proposals to lower fees for STEM degrees in order to encourage students to pursue those fields instead of liberal arts.
In February, University President Mary Sue Coleman said the initiative discredits the worth that all degrees promise. She noted that a finance student, for instance, could participate in a classics program that would provide skills that student could use in his future career.
“What the humanities do so well is really help students acquire a discipline of inquiry and problem solving,” Coleman said. “(I dislike) the notion that some degrees are less valuable than others.”
No similar measures have been proposed in Michigan, and many within the state’s Republican party say it’s unlikely to occur in Michigan.
State Rep. Al Pscholka (R–Stevensville), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, said scholarships and giving younger students experience in STEM fields would produce better science graduates.
“How do we teach science and math at lower levels that makes it more exciting for children?” Pscholka said. “That’s maybe the root cause of this issue rather than subsidizing tuition at the later years.”
The Florida proposal does not specify which majors would qualify for low tuition. Rather, it identifies STEM, health professions, education specialties in math and science, “globalization” and public safety services as key areas of economic development.
This initiative from the Republican governor is exemplary of his recent focus on energizing Florida’s economy. In his State of the State Address earlier this month, Scott’s first discussion point was education.
“The workers of tomorrow are in Florida classrooms today,” Scott said in the address. “I believe Florida will be the number one place in the world for job creation (and) the number one place in the world to get a great education.”
The program builds upon Scott’s earlier proposal that the state’s 28 community colleges offer degrees for $10,000, which was similarly a 2011 move in Texas by Gov. Rick Perry.
Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank based in Midland, Mich., said similar proposals are unlikely to occur in Michigan because there is no unified state university system. He added that one problem with the initiative is the potential for students to use the lower tuition incentive to pursue a degree that does not fit them.
School of Education Prof. Lisa Lattuca, who specializes in researching problems of higher education in engineering, countered that the efforts could make certain fields more accessible. The historical underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields, she said, is a limiting factor in its growth.
“If (the efforts) get students to a degree that will get their foot in the workforce, then that’s not such a bad thing,” Lattuca said. “It’s possible that some students might study something that their hearts are not in, but I don’t think that’s much different than what goes on now.”
Scott emphasized in the 2011 interview that taxpayers are funding higher education, so they should expect a return on their investments by having work-force-ready graduates.
However, Economics Prof. Charles Brown said the money invested in all types of education would have a small effect on Florida’s economy. Notably, some grads educated by the Florida system may take their tech savvy to out-of-state companies.
Brown added that job prediction is difficult, and the proposal rests on the assumption that politicians can determine growing fields.
“If you look at currently ‘hot’ jobs and asked whether anyone knew they would be ‘hot’ 15 years ago, I think in many cases the answer is clearly ‘no,’ ” Brown said. “The idea is not to pick hot fields; it’s to train people so they can adapt to a very hard-to-predict future. I wish I had good evidence on whether STEM training makes people more adaptable.”