Should Stanford Subsidize STEM Degrees?

Should Stanford Subsidize STEM Degrees?

If Stanford tried charging higher tuition for students of color, lawsuits would be filed faster than you can say “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” If Stanford tried charging higher tuition for women, Lilly Ledbetter herself would hold an indignant press conference in front of Hoover Tower (and even the frattiest fratstars would have her back). But what would happen if Stanford tried charging higher tuition for fuzzies?

This is precisely what has been proposed by Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and, more recently, by Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin for public universities in their states. Rick Scott’s loaded question, asked last year to a business audience, sums up the sentiment: “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

A Florida task force commissioned by Scott has now officially incorporated a differential tuition scheme, whereby universities charge less for science, technology, engineering, and math degrees (STEM), in its recommendations for higher education reform. Taxpayer money is best used to fund degrees that will boost the state’s economy, and making those degrees cheaper than the less marketable alternatives is one way to incentivize them, the reasoning goes.

Are these proposals a thinly veiled “threat to the humanities” that will lead to “a decimation of the liberal arts” in the states concerned, as the University of Florida’s outraged history faculty contends, or are they a savvy step towards economic efficiency—or both?

It seems there are three premises we need to buy into before accepting the governors’ proposals. First, we need to trust that lowering the price of STEM degrees actually would lead more students to enter those fields. Second, we need to believe that such a shift would in fact benefit a state’s economy. And finally, we have to make sure that this benefit outweighs any unstated costs there are to this policy—economic or otherwise.

**Would the Incentive Work? **

Assistant Professor Kristi Olson of the Political Science department has her doubts. “Let’s assume that STEM majors make more money than humanities majors,” Olson said. “People who are financially motivated already have a huge incentive to be a STEM major. So what’s making it the case that they’re not pursuing STEM majors?”

There are two sorts of students who would be drawn into STEM fields because of the differential pricing scheme, she reasoned: financially motivated students who “aren’t able to look four years into the future,” and students who have a tough time paying for college in the short term—“a small subset who really want to be humanities majors but can’t afford it.” But how large would these two subpopulations end up being?

Brent Evans, a doctoral student with the Center for Education Policy Analysis who will receive his Ph.D. this year, is an expert in the economics of higher education. Evans said there has been very little empirical work done on the question of differential tuition, even though the policy is relatively common—in the opposite direction.

“Over the last 10 to 20 years, a lot of institutions have charged differential tuition based on the cost of providing the major, and providing STEM majors is actually more expensive than non-STEM majors,” making humanities and social science degrees cheaper for students, Evans explained.

Kevin Stange, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, has a working paper in which he measures the effect of these policies on enrollment in different fields. Stange found a small reduction in engineering majors, but no reduction in business or nursing majors, perhaps due to differences in the labor markets for these three professions. Does this finding suggest there would be a similar, small effect in the opposite direction under the pro-STEM tuition scheme, one that at least encourages students to become engineers?

Evans’ dissertation is concerned with exactly this question. He examines the effect of the National SMART Grant, a federal program from 2006 to 2010 that offered high-performing low-income students $4,000 in their junior year and $4,000 in their senior year if they studied a STEM field.

On one hand, the SMART scholarship offered more financial benefit than a differential tuition scheme traditionally would, but on the other hand, this policy delays gratification by two years compared to the governors’ proposals, so it’s questionable how relevant Evans’ evidence is. Nonetheless, his findings are striking: “I don’t find an effect. I find no movement into STEM majors amongst the eligible students relative to the ineligible students.”

Thus, on the basis of Stange’s work and his own—the only research done on this topic—Evans concludes, “We don’t have reason to believe there would be a big change [in STEM enrollment due to differential tuition], but we don’t have a lot of evidence to the contrary either.”

Would More STEM Majors Be Economically Beneficial?

Rather unsurprisingly, Olson says no while Evans says yes.

Olson finds the argument “plausible but not established.” She pointed out that even if STEM majors currently economically benefit the state more than other majors, the dynamics of the labor market would determine whether having more of them would be an economic plus; in some cases, more could even hurt. Furthermore, it might be worth questioning whether people influenced to study STEM by the tuition study are equally likely to stay in, or contribute to, those fields than those who did not need lower rates to select those majors.

Evans, however, believes the policy probably would better prepare students for entering the workforce. The question is purely empirical, and since it’s often argued both that there is an undersupply and an oversupply of STEM workers, it’s tough to know who has the economic analysis right. Granting that Evans is correct about STEM taken as a whole, however, there’s another concern about the proposed subsidy: does it make sense to promote every subfield of STEM just because it’s in STEM. What about sub-fields of non-STEM disciplines that are more economically beneficial various sub-fields of STEM.

For example, in an article calling into question Florida’s guess that more STEM majors will boost the economy, the Miami-Herald points out petroleum engineers are doing well while biologists are not. Why, then, should all those majors be subsidized across the board? Why not price tuition in tandem with the labor market across all disciplines, without regard to whether they’re techy or fuzzy? On its face, this awkward lumping of majors belies something of a prejudice favoring the sciences at the expense of the humanities. Otherwise, the numbers just wouldn’t add up.

**Are There Other Costs to the Proposal? **

**            **Let’s say differential tuition will push all the right buttons in students’ minds, and let’s say it’ll be an economic boon. Is that enough?

For one thing, we might be concerned by the “disturbing” prospect of an “extra incentive that’s just applied to the people who can least afford college that steers them into a particular major,” as Olson argues we ought to be.

But there’s a larger issue at play about what the purpose of a university should be. Those who support these proposals assume the economic arguments speak for themselves. But if domestic economic benefits were an inherently sufficient justification for pedagogical changes in universities, then colleges should devote more resources to training students to manufacture hair-loss prevention drugs than drugs that cure malaria, Olson pointed out.

Ultimately, however, the most easily foreseeable cost of differential tuition would be the inevitable damage it would wreak on humanities and social science departments. Resources are partially a function of enrollment, so to the extent that the policy successfully incentivizes students toward STEM, it hurts other fields.

More disturbingly, the proposals would be adding students into the fields most expensive for the university to administer, while slashing their tuition. This most likely means non-STEM departments would not suffer to a level commensurate to their declining enrollment—it would be worse. How could we possibly discern how percentage points gained in GDP or how many new jobs would be worth it? Olson said it best: “The irony of this is they’re [proposing] something that [we wouldn’t be able to effectively] debate; those very majors that would have that discussion are slowly being discouraged.”

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