Earlier this year, my little sister approached me while I was enjoying a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats with a particular announcement: “I want to major in art when I go to college.” Ever since she started middle school, art became her creative outlet. She would ask for distinct markers for Christmas, and the money she would save up from miscellaneous chores went into savings for a Wacom drawing tablet. So, this would have seemed like a reasonable declaration for someone who expresses so much passion for drawing, right? My immediate response: “Don’t.”
The average tuition for a public four-year college is $9,410. For out-of-state students, the cost rises to $23,890. Private four-year universities are even higher: $32,410. Student debt, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. The graduating class of 2015 has most student debt in U.S. history. Students cumulatively owe lenders more than $1 trillion dollars. For someone planning to get a degree in art, is college worth the investment? Especially since graduates from art-focused schools seem to rack up the most student-loan debt. With this in mind, colleges should raise tuition accordingly to majors with higher expected lifetime earnings.
This wouldn’t even be an issue if colleges exclusively acted within the public sector — eliminating the cost completely. With even public universities functioning within the capitalistic model — boasting that it is the “one of the top 50 public universities” or offering more than “150 academic majors” like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for example — it is hard to claim that university’s sole motivation is to act in the best interest of the students. Universities have been increasingly moving toward a business model. In 1960, California residents had free tuition. Now if a student attended the University of California at Los Angeles, it would cost $27,987 for room and board for in-state students. With universities becoming more and more like big businesses and treating their students like customers, it makes sense for the consumers, students, to demand the best package deal with their education value.
Moreover, it makes sense to hike up the price for engineering majors: It costs more. For example, in New York’s state colleges, hard sciences and engineering courses cost twice as much as fine/applied arts and five times as much as low-level psychology classes. That means that if someone wants to utilize the English courses or history courses, they would be paying for not just their own share/value, but for someone with a completely unrelated career path than their own. Imagine if you bought pizza with four friends. Each of you equally spent $2.99 for this pizza. When the pizza comes, two of your four friends eat 75 percent of that pizza whereas you and your other friend have to divide the rest of it. The system is inherently unfair. Why not change it? Wouldn’t it make sense for two of your friends to pay a little more for the pizza if they were going to use a greater amount of resource? The same applies to the university. It doesn’t make sense to go for a one-price-fits-all if other degrees are reaping more of the rewards.
The sad part is that engineering majors have a higher expected income after graduation than people who major in art. A system that taxes majors with higher expected lifetime earnings will allow people to pursue their passions rather than think about practicality. My sister absolutely loves art, but knowing the risks and high debt associated with the major, I was reluctant to fully support her decision. “Definitely pursue your passions,” I told her, “but consider majoring in computer science with a minor in art when you’re in college.” This was not the answer that she was expecting, but it was the most realistic one.
Not all share this sentiment. The Florida State Task Force also wants to vary tuition by majors — but in a completely different regard: pushing to decrease tuition for STEM majors and increase tuition in fields such as political science, anthropology and psychology. Its aim is to dissuade people from pursuing paths that are in much lower demand compared to STEM fields. The problem is that it may end up saddling people who pursue the social sciences and the humanities with an even greater burden of debt. Logically, it doesn’t make sense either. Majors such as political science or English do not teach to a specific career paths. Students who major in these fields find positions anywhere from being a barista to working in Washington headquarters. They are not guaranteed a lot of money on graduation, whereas the starting salary for someone with a degree in computer science can be six figures.
Additionally, it also suggests that these degrees are worth less than STEM. A stigma already perpetuated by popular culture, like the recent controversy with Wells Fargo ads implying that the arts are worth less than sciences. I remember telling an individual what I planned to major in college: “English.” The response: “Oh,” accompanied by the puzzled frown and “What are you planning to do with that?”
Increasing tuition for engineers and business majors may deter students from pursuing that path, opponents argue. It might. But that argument is fundamentally flawed. If paying extra for a biomedical engineering degree, for example, dissuades students, wouldn’t that logic play with the knowledge that the lifetime expected earnings for political science, for example, are lower than biomedical engineering also deter the same students for exactly those reasons?
My sister’s declaration plagued my mind. I always maintain follow your passion, but would that end up hurting her more than helping her? With a system that places a greater price-tag on more financially rewarding careers, my sister wouldn’t have to worry about being “practical” and would be able to actually do what she wants. As students, we must stop the one-price-fits-all philosophy and demand a progressive tuition. If universities continue to emulate big businesses, then we as customers should demand our fair share.
Sarah Salman is an LSA freshman.