Frank Cerabino / Cox Newspapers
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—
Attention, future Florida college students:
Put down that Plato. Step away from the easel. Never mind the colonial subtext in Charles Dickens' “Great Expectations.”
You ought to be abandoning your non-number-crunching studies in order to save Florida's future by choosing STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — majors.
At least, that's the thinking of a state task force on higher education, which is proposing that future students at Florida's public colleges and universities be charged different tuition based on their majors.
By making STEM majors cheaper than other majors, more students will be drawn to them, the task force has concluded.
This is a lousy idea.
For starters, if the goal is to make students more marketable for employment after graduation, they should be funneled toward majors that develop communications skills, not lab skills.
Researchers at Oklahoma State University asked 450 employers last year to rank the three top attributes they look for in college graduates. The winners were communication skills, critical thinking skills and writing skills.
In other words, just the sort of skills that are developed in a liberal-arts education.
So to punish nontechnical majors as something less than worthy seems counterproductive. And it's also based on a faulty economic premise, others argue.
“Sure, everyone knows the petroleum engineers are raking it in,” wrote Elizabeth Popp Berman, a sociology professor at the State University of New York, in an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “But even after Ph.D.'s, many STEM folks are stuck in postdoc hell, and mid-career, 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,' 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)?”
In an attempt to push students toward certain majors, the state would also be violating the “follow your bliss” philosophy of mythologist Joseph Campbell.
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living,” Campbell wrote. “When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.”
That seems to be a more reasonable bit of advice for high school students than trying to turn poets into mechanical engineers.
If Florida's governor and Legislature follow the recommendation to use variable tuition rates to guide students into math, science and engineering majors, they won't be leading by example.
Gov. Rick Scott majored in business administration before getting his law degree. And it isn't easy finding STEM majors among the 120 members of the Florida House and 40 members of the Florida Senate.
There are a total of three engineering majors, two math majors and one computer science major in the state Legislature.
You can find a member of the Florida Legislature whose highest level of education is a high-school G.E.D. diploma, but you can't find a single biology, chemistry or physics major in the lot.
So it would be more than ironic if the state Legislature, with 96 percent of its members being former non-STEM majors, puts a higher value on doing what they didn't do.