In Defense Of Equal Tuition For All Majors

Should English and history majors be forced to pay higher tuition than engineering students do? Yes, according to a recently released draft report from a Florida task force on higher education. The report recommends a tuition structure that would favor students majoring in "strategic" areas, including security and emergency services, globalization, and science, technology, engineering, and math (the so-called STEM fields). It is a well-meaning proposal intended to meet genuine needs, but it's likely to create more problems than it solves.

Offering tuition breaks for strategic majors is meant to entice undergraduates who otherwise might have pursued their passion for, say, literature, to instead choose to spend their college years learning skills like Java programming. But will it work? Almost certainly not. If the substantial financial advantages of graduating with a degree in a strategic discipline aren't already attracting sufficient numbers of students, throwing an annual tuition discount at them won't have much effect.

According to data released in September by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor's-degree recipients in the Class of 2012 who majored in engineering and computer science received average starting salaries of over $60,000, while degree recipients in the humanities and social sciences had average starting salaries of less than $37,000. That is an enormous difference. Students who select a major on the basis of degree marketability alone shouldn't be second-guessed by the rest of us.

But neither should students whose interests happen to lie elsewhere. Undergraduates who elect a course of study that might mean forgoing tens of thousands of dollars in annual income upon graduation are unlikely to change their majors to obtain a tuition discount measuring only a small fraction of that amount. For them, Florida's not-so-gentle attempt to influence their choices would more likely be viewed as an insult than an enticement.

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THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

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