Should Florida universities charge higher tuition for science and engineering majors?

Such a recommendation appears to be heading for approval by Governor Scott’s Task Force on Higher Education.

The task force’s notes refer to higher tuition charged for engineering majors at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Illinois and the University of Texas.  The annual tuition differentials for engineering students at those institutions are $1400 (Wisconsin), $1050 (Pittsburgh), $4920 (Illinois), and $868 (Texas).  The sources here are the tuition web pages of the individual institutions.  So in three of those four cases the differentials are not large compared to the base tuition, which ranges from about $8000 to about $16000.  Nevertheless, even a $1000 differential is an economic disincentive to major in engineering.

If differential tuition for science and engineering is OK in the states listed above, wouldn’t it be OK in Florida?  Perhaps not.  It turns out that there are some significant differences in the educational cultures of Florida and at least most of these states.  Take a look at these data on the number of bachelors’ degrees in natural sciences and engineering awarded in each state in 2009 divided by the number of 18-24 year-olds to normalize for college-age population (source is the NSF’s 2012 science and engineering indicators):

It’s worth noting that the Florida number accounts for all higher ed institutions in Florida, and not just public institutions.  Florida is far behind Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in this measure, and behind Illinois as well.  From this, we can argue that PA and WI (and to a lesser extent IL) have educational cultures that encourage students to pursue the challenging majors in engineering in science.  In Florida, we need a cultural shift to significantly increase the production of engineers and scientists.  Perhaps higher tuition for engineering does no harm in PA, WI and IL.  But that certainly doesn’t mean it will do no harm in FL, where already relatively few students want to pursue these fields.

Florida’s efforts to encourage more students to study science and engineering have so far been unsuccessful.  Consider the data from the NSF on the percentage of Florida college degrees that are awarded in natural sciences and engineering:

The 2009 Florida rate is behind the national rate (15.2%) and is not trending upward in a significant way.

Given all this, it seems that inserting a disincentive to study science and engineering through a tuition differential would be bad public policy for Florida.

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One Response to Should Florida universities charge higher tuition for science and engineering majors?

  1. Pingback: Gainesville Sun reporter Nathan Crabbe: SUS students in high-demand fields may pay lower tuition than others « Bridge to Tomorrow

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