Dear Governors and State Legislators: Do we want more students to become engineers and scientists? Or not? Differential tuition policies impact students’ choice of fields.

All over the nation, education policy-makers and political leaders say they want more students to pursue careers in the economically important and lucrative fields of engineering and science.  It’s even more important that we give students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to these fields, if they study hard and have the necessary intellectual tools.

In a sane world, that would mean that we give our educational institutions the resources they need to help students achieve the deep understanding of science, math and engineering necessary for success and leadership.  And perhaps they’d even give these students economic incentives for taking on the greater workloads and stress levels that college majors in these fields experience.

But reality looks like this:  Louisiana is considering devastating cuts to its public higher education system.  And to help balance the books, the state is considering charging students in engineering and science higher tuition than students in other fields like English and history are charged.

As folks who know their way around the higher education policy landscape know, many states already do this.  States like Pennsylvania (see a sample tuition schedule here) and Illinois (tuition schedule here).  A group at Cornell inventoried differential tuition policies several years ago, and they found that the incidence of such policies has increased steeply over the last 20 years.

Does this differential tuition really affect students’ choices of majors?  A study completed in 2013 by University of Michigan economist Kevin Stange gives the unsurprising answer:  Yes.  And the impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds?  In his abstract, Stange says, “There is some evidence that student groups already underrepresented in certain fields are particularly affected by the new pricing policies.”  Go figure.

In richly ironic academic language, Stange concludes his abstract with this:  “Price does appear to be a policy lever through which state governments can alter the field composition of the workforce they are training with the public higher education system.”

For better or for worse.

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