The proposal of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Higher Education to charge lower tuition for science and engineering majors at Florida’s universities is the first serious proposal for incentivizing the state’s students to enter these fields. The task force should be congratulated for the gutsiness of this proposal. Instead of doing so, the editorial board of the Orlando Sentinel chose to slam the proposal in an editorial in this morning’s paper.
The task force’s proposal grows out of the first rule of holes as framed by journalist Molly Ivins: “When you’re in one, stop digging.” According to a recent Georgetown University report, the chasm between the economic prospects of engineering, computer science and mathematics majors and those in many social science and arts fields is wide and has been exacerbated by the Great Recession. Yet the percentage of new Florida college graduates who earn degrees in the natural sciences and engineering has remained stuck near 13.5% for the entire decade leading up to 2009, the most recent year for which the National Science Foundation has data. In other words, Florida’s students are in a hole. And not only do they keep digging, but through its tuition policies the state has continued to help with the digging.
I was a physics major as an undergraduate, and I took only one course in microeconomics. Nevertheless, President Machen’s proposal to raise tuition for those very majors we were trying to encourage students to pursue always seemed like a bad idea to me. With his tuition proposal, Machen would pick up a shovel and help dig students into a deeper hole.
In considering tuition policy, the Governor’s Task Force looked at four states in which universities charge higher tuition for engineering and science majors – Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. But the educational cultures of three of these states (Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) are very different from that here in Florida. To prove this, one need only look at the rates at which college-age students in these states earn degrees in the natural science and engineering. Not only is the rate in Florida lower than those in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but it is almost twice as high in Pennsylvania as in Florida. Even if higher tuition for science and engineering does no harm in Pennsylvania, it could very well do harm here in Florida. We have to try something fundamentally different here.
(The careful reader will notice my omission of Texas, which has a rate comparable to that of Florida. But would we ever want to make education policy in Florida based on what they are doing in Texas?)
Ironically, the Sentinel’s editorial board should know as well as anyone how rapidly the economic landscape has shifted in Florida and the world. While the board has worked hard to maintain a high quality journalistic product, the newspaper has struggled to survive the media shift from traditional sources to the internet and the resulting challenge to the definition of quality journalism.
The world our kids are graduating into is dramatically different than the one into which I graduated and the members of the Sentinel editorial board graduated. We have to adopt a bold strategy to prepare our students for this new world, and the proposal advanced by the Governor’s Task Force is a constructive first step.