Auxter: Higher Rates for Non-STEM Students Bound to Backfire

November 30, 2012. “What happens when we give politicians the license to back away from funding non-STEM programs?”

By Tom Auxter | Guest columnist, Orlando Sentinel
November 30, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott says he wants more majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM fields. His Blue Ribbon Task Force on Higher Education Reform recently recommended achieving this goal by charging non-STEM students more. The task force report called this “differentiated tuition.”

This proposal opens the door to charging much higher tuition for non-STEM students, who are now almost two-thirds of students. Although this new tuition scheme has little chance of producing additional STEM majors, it could easily damage the quality of the core curriculum.

The Legislature has already undercut Florida’s essential degree programs in several ways:

1. Budget reductions: Over the past five years, the Legislature cut about a third of the universities’ budgets. Before these cuts, Florida was already among the bottom five states for higher education funding per capita. Many university departments were already operating with a skeleton staff. Now almost all departments have barely enough faculty to teach core degree-requirement courses.

2. Pushing toward privatization: The universities are now under pressure to seek private funding for programs. But while private funds are available for the professional schools, such funds are scarce for the rest of the university. So while law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, etc. can find some private money, the core curriculum that undergraduates depend on goes begging. And over-reliance on privatization can undermine the mission of the universities to create and share knowledge for the public good.

3. Ignoring the loss of faculty: Departing faculty are not replaced, and departments shrink to half the size of programs in comparable universities elsewhere. Courses are packed. Adjuncts come and go, and students lose the relationships with faculty members that provide advice and guidance in college and recommendations for graduate studies or employment upon graduation.

Against this background, what is the effect of jacking up the tuition of non-STEM students? What happens when we give politicians the license to back away from funding non-STEM programs?

1. Cherry-picking victims: Differentiated tuition will enable politicians to falsely claim they support the universities while actually eviscerating them. Now the governor, who wants to stop funding anthropology, and the new Senate president, who wants to stop funding psychology, have a way to stop funding these “frivolous” degrees.

2. Student exodus: Students are already questioning why they ever started a degree in Florida, even with Bright Futures covering some tuition. What good is having a degree from a gutted program? Where can they go with it? Are they ready for a future with huge gaps in their preparation? Will they happily pay off much larger student loans for a program that shortchanges them? Or, will they decide to accept scholarships from other states where they will not be cheated out of a meaningful degree and a real future? Will we soon find an exodus of the best and the brightest students from Florida?

3. Faculty exodus: Faculty are already leaving Florida’s universities in record numbers. In their eyes, budget cuts in teaching and research demonstrate Florida’s devaluation of university education. For example, Florida State University lost 50 faculty members in each of the past two years. This plan will accelerate the loss of faculty.

The irony is that the extra money politicians think they are getting through differentiated tuition will be useless for attracting new faculty to STEM programs in the way they planned. STEM faculty are like other faculty: They are attracted to a real university, with the vitality of intellectual and cultural life that comes with it.

They will reject the new vocational/technical model of a university designed by politicians. And when they do, the universities will be hard-pressed to add the STEM majors the governor wants.

Tom Auxter is a philosophy professor at the University of Florida and statewide president of United Faculty of Florida.