More STEM Majors Won’t Solve Higher Education’s Problems

November 1, 2012, 1:44 pm in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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By Elizabeth Popp Berman

Charge art-history majors more for their degrees than biology students? Yes, according to the new draft proposal of Gov. Rick Scott’s Florida Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform. The panel proposes to keep tuition flat for degrees in “strategic areas of emphasis,” which include science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields; health professions; “high demand” education fields; and (oddly) globalization; while raising it in all other areas.

This has a certain logic to it: Why waste taxpayer dollars subsidizing students who study “useless” subjects in college, like philosophy or history? Why not encourage them to go into practical fields, like science and engineering? But this proposal is misguided on multiple levels.

First, the folks pushing STEM degrees clearly haven’t talked to a lot of biology majors. Or chemists. Sure, everyone knows the petroleum engineers are raking it in. But even after Ph.D.’s, many STEM folks are stuck in postdoc hell, and midcareer, the median salary of a biology major is more than $13,000 a year less than her counterpart in political science. Heck, she even comes in almost $4,000 behind the much-maligned film major. Besides, if this is about encouraging students to go into—and I quote—“high-skill, high-demand, high-wage degrees (market determined),” why give the subsidy to STEM? Why not give it to finance majors ($23,500 above the poor biologists) or economists (almost $34,000 above)?

Second, there’s no reason to think this would help Florida economically. If the state wants to align higher education with the needs of business, it should take a look at surveys of employers, who indicate, year after year, that what they most want from college grads is “the ability to effectively communicate” and “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills”—classic hallmarks of a liberal arts education. And studies like Academically Adrift show that it’s the humanities and social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, that lead to measurable improvements in critical thinking.

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