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Friday, December 28, 2012

If Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Are So Important, Why Create Financial Disincentives to Pursue Their Study?

Posted by on Fri, Dec 28, 2012 at 3:41 PM

One of the education buzzwords we hear a lot about these days is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), the course of studies we should allegedly be emphasizing if we want our children to remain competitive in a 21st century economy. Which is why I find it so confusing to see so many of the same folks who relentlessly argue for STEM (at the expense of a broader liberal arts education) also advocate for financial disincentives to its study:

WASHINGTON lawmakers are legitimately concerned that higher education’s ability to charge more for certain degrees will raise the state’s obligation to families who prepaid college costs.

But permanently repealing the 2011 law that gave colleges and universities the flexibility, as a few legislators have proposed, would be the wrong move.

[...] Differential tuition ought to be here to stay. In higher education, less-expensive programs, such as philosophy, subsidize more-expensive majors such as engineering. If schools could charge higher tuition for high-demand, high-wage fields, they could rely less on subsidies.

Actually, the notion that less-expensive programs subsidize STEM is not technically true. Philosophy and engineering, for example, are both subsidized by taxpayers, if perhaps to different degrees. This sort of rhetoric just strikes me as an unseemly effort to play liberal arts students off against STEM students in pursuit of, well, raising tuition rates even further.

But my bigger concern is the total lack of research addressing the impacts of differential tuition on education access. Educators talk about the achievement gap—but what about the opportunity gap? What will be the impact on lower income students of charging a premium for STEM degrees? Why rush headlong into differential tuition before the impacts have been studied, and without the guarantees that the financial aid will be there for those who need it?

Angie Weiss of the Associated Students of the University of Washington tells me that both the ASUW and the statewide Washington Student Association actively oppose differential tuition for exactly these reasons. Weiss says the ASUW has received more emails from STEM students on this than on any other issue.

"We need predictable tuition rates," says Weiss, "so that students in high-demand majors can afford to study them in the first place."

Instead, the editorial above is essentially arguing for hiking tuition rates even further, if selectively. And it's hard to see how that on its own is a long term solution to anything.

 

Comments (26) RSS

Newest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Sandiai 33
Whatevs. ("How many squirrels?...lalala")
Posted by Sandiai on December 29, 2012 at 5:13 PM · Report this
Sandiai 30
Thanks rob! That'll help a lot.
Posted by Sandiai on December 29, 2012 at 2:04 PM · Report this
Posted by rob! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZBdUceCL5U on December 29, 2012 at 12:45 PM · Report this
Bauhaus I 26
I was watching the Kennedy Honors mid-week and as always was very proud for a few short moments of the magnificent accomplishments we humans are capable of. And then I wondered how this kind of majesty can continue in this country with the state our schools are in: the absence now of art and music and dance. I'd be willing to listen to the argument that given a choice what our schools need is not an emphasis on art but an emphasis on math and science and engineering - but we aren't even doing that. In the big cities, teachers spend as much time trying to keep students from killing each other as they do trying to teach high school sophomores how to read or teaching to pass the proficiency exam.

If I were a parent, I don't know what I would do. I want to believe in the public school system, but I can see why parents work 12-16 hours a day to send their kids to private schools.
Posted by Bauhaus I on December 29, 2012 at 10:51 AM · Report this
25
Now that's a "duuuuhh" question!

Please see my comments in the comment section under "Today's News" ---

(The Sinister State of the American Economy)
Posted by sgt_doom on December 29, 2012 at 10:50 AM · Report this
Sir Vic 23
@9 I'm with you all the way on this one. I've got a LibArts degree, which is all about "learning to learn", not reciting Keats or writing haiku. Working in the software industry, the vast majority of programmer types I encounter are stunted in the humanities - they cannot converse with someone who doesn't work in the same field as they do and therefore knows all the buzzwords and acronyms. It can be really painful at times to watch them try to explain or learn something without intellectual shortcuts.

I know the most important class I took in college was Physics, as it helped me see the natural relationships in life. Perhaps the STEM folks need to take a meta-physics class or two to help them see the humanity in science.

Differential tuition will sharply cut interdisciplinary studies, which will lead to more social workers that can't figure out why their Xmas tree keeps falling over, and more engineers who only associate Bethlehem with steel.
Posted by Sir Vic on December 29, 2012 at 8:38 AM · Report this
Dr. Z 22
What you choose to study is a form of freedom of speech. Colleges can charge for tuition, of course, but if they are going to charge different rates for different majors then state-supported colleges (as opposed to private schools) must pass the most stringent form of scrutiny in order to justify the higher rates. Otherwise, this would amount to a form of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. Calling the ACLU...
Posted by Dr. Z on December 29, 2012 at 6:14 AM · Report this
Big Sven 20
Fuck this. We only have one decent engineering school north of Berkeley, and we're going to make it harder for those students? WA already has to import STEM talent to a staggering degree to support the B, M$, and Amazon. And finally, engineering courses aren't any more expensive than liberal arts courses- labs are built from grant money.
Posted by Big Sven http://onedatapoint.blogspot.com/ on December 29, 2012 at 2:53 AM · Report this
rob! 19
...and @17 gives the other reason why I opted out of grad school. A couple of solid post-docs are essential in the biomedical arena (you haven't got a prayer of getting a decent faculty job without them), and the low stipends/post-doc salaries meant 7-8 years before I would again approach what I was already getting in industry.

Especially glad I didn't tread that water given the unexpected turns my life has taken since then.
Posted by rob! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZBdUceCL5U on December 28, 2012 at 9:10 PM · Report this
18
Man, I just assumed from "charge more for certain degrees" they meant more for philosophy degrees and other things the job market and public at large have no interest in, and less for, say, nursing or whatever the state is feeling a shortage of. Charging based on ability to pay is already done; why add a variable if it's not even going to help control the supply of usefully trained people?
Posted by Orsh on December 28, 2012 at 9:04 PM · Report this
well_now 17
STEM major here, in the biomedical research area. Most of the profs in my field are paid by NIH grants, and those NIH grants to universities often include a 10%-50% (depending on the university) kickback to the university- ostensibly for building maintenance, departmental admins, recruiting, keeping the lights on and the freezers running, etc. My undergraduate neuroscience program at the UW had high tech equipement, but my UW undergraduate microbiology program was pretty low tech. The only expensive equipment I remember in labs were our microscopes, and those were pretty standard microscopes. Our classes are usually gigantic (50-500/lecture), they use the same projectors and computers that everybody else does, we don't pay for adjunct faculty to teach, and most of us don't make that much money after we graduate. We go to Ph.D programs for 5-6 years and live on a stipend of $26,000, then we get post-docs for $36,000, then we get assistant professorships for however much- not usually over $70,000, and eventually we'll top out in the $90,000-$180,000 if we're very, VERY lucky, and almost all of that is paid by NIH grants. I don't think we're as big a drain on the university's finances as people think we are. Administration staff and luxury construction, on the other hand...

Also, won't higher tuition for STEM fields discourage low-income students from pursuing these degrees? That's bad. I'm all for retroactive tuition based on how much you make at the job you get after school.
Posted by well_now on December 28, 2012 at 8:39 PM · Report this
16
@ 9 gee thanks!

I have a stem degree and, while I do pretty well, I consistently guide communications and business majors who make more than me. I just don't see any evidence that people who have soft degrees make more moral decisions than I do.
Posted by MikeB on December 28, 2012 at 7:59 PM · Report this
15
Schools just need to start cutting unnecessary spending. My tuition went of $5k from last year to this year, meanwhile the HUB got a major overhaul and they are building new dorms all over the place and remodeling several other buildings on campus. The school keeps seeking permission from the state to raise tuition by more than the maximum amount per year because of the dire state of their budget, yet continue to spend money on bullshit vanity projects.
Posted by ourkind on December 28, 2012 at 7:45 PM · Report this
eoionline 14
@Supreme Ruler of the Universe, the Economic Opportunity Institute has outlined how income-based repayment could work here in Washington. Under the "Pay It plan, students pay no upfront tuition fees to attend college. Instead, they pay a small percentage of their adjusted gross income (AGI) for a number of years after college: 0.75% per year of community college, or 1% per year of university, for 25 years. Payments are placed in a trust fund that covers the cost for future students to receive the same opportunity to attend college with no tuition fees – hence, “Pay It Forward”.

This system has several advantages: First, it entirely removes up-front tuition barriers to attending college. Second, after the transition to Pay It Forward is complete, the system is not only entirely self-financing – it also supports successive net increases in college enrollment, making higher education both more affordable and accessible for succeeding generations of students. Third, by linking payments to students’ ability to pay, Pay It Forward allows graduates to chose work based on their interests and skills, rather than solely on financial conditions. And finally, students retain access to federal financial aid to cover their cost of living, books, etc.

More here, including a full report: http://washingtonpolicywatch.org/2012/10…
Posted by eoionline http://www.eoionline.org on December 28, 2012 at 7:44 PM · Report this
13

Why not take it all the way then...and make tuition based on actual post-degree income? Those that get the most result from their degree, pay the most. Those that ended up with loans and no job. Don't.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on December 28, 2012 at 7:27 PM · Report this
rob! 12
@5/11, I agree as far as labor expense is concerned, but instructional facilities/laboratories for STEM disciplines are hugely expensive to build and operate. On the other hand, they're magnets for major corporate and private donations, and often have huge P.R. value for their institutions.

@11, STEM-field graduate education can be brutally competitive, dehumanizing, and exhausting, too. Long gone are the days when my dad's major professors took a personal interest in their students and often had them over for dinner. The system selects for almost 100% assholes at the top; it's why I largely opted out of grad school except for selected classes.
Posted by rob! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZBdUceCL5U on December 28, 2012 at 6:52 PM · Report this
11
@5 is right. Plus, only the TE folk make any money. Scientists and mathematicians have trouble making money in our fields. When you factor in the 6 years of 25K graduate work, there is already financial disincentive to pursue science and mathematics.
Posted by wxPDX on December 28, 2012 at 6:36 PM · Report this
Goldy 10
@9 I'm the office of Jew this week. But thanks for your concern.
Posted by Goldy on December 28, 2012 at 6:32 PM · Report this
WFM 9
What occurs to me is, what about STEM majors who get zero education in philosophy, history, literature, etc? Will they hesitate to develop a new nerve gas delivery system or just see it as another sweet technical challenge?

And jeez Goldy, it's the holidays, take a break.
Posted by WFM on December 28, 2012 at 6:20 PM · Report this
Dr_Awesome 8
@4 (ebenezer) - So, wait, you're saying our future scientists and engineers should not be selected on their ability or aptitude, they should be determined by who's daddy is wealthier?
Posted by Dr_Awesome on December 28, 2012 at 6:07 PM · Report this
7
The only constant in the Seattle Times Editorial Board's opinions on education is the bizarre inconsistency of them.
Posted by Charlie Mas on December 28, 2012 at 5:58 PM · Report this
rob! 6
Who cares if the same economic stratum that can send their kids to boarding school in Switzerland becomes the only one that can pay for a university education in medicine or engineering? After all, relatively lucrative fields such as business and law should continue to be available at low cost. No further class divisions will occur.

/sarcasm

No less a luminary than Michael Crow, president of Arizona State, "America's youngest major research university" (oop, some sarcasm just crept back in), recently opined that we should get rid of stodgy old departments like biology and geology because today's hyperconnected students can retrieve the minimal musty historical perspective they might need from Wikipedia on their smartphones, or something. Link is below, but the full editorial is now behind a paywall--it was in the Oct. 2012 Scientific American, if you can grab a print copy. I haven't decided how I feel about the whole thing; here's the executive summary:
In Brief:

• Responsibility for the state of science literacy rests largely with institutions of higher education, who are the ones that educate the teachers.

• In STEM, universities are failing the majority of students, in part because adherence to rigid academic approaches makes these fields forbidding.

• Arizona State University eliminated some academic departments such as biology and geology and embraced a "transdisciplinary" approach.

• In the past decade undergraduate enrollments in STEM majors at Arizona State have doubled overall and increased significantly for women and minorities.
So, alrighty, then?

http://www.scientificamerican.com/articl…
More...
Posted by rob! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZBdUceCL5U on December 28, 2012 at 5:48 PM · Report this
5
I don't know about Engineering or Technology, but in Science and Medicine the faculty often pay their own salaries from research grants and performance of clinical duties - indeed, they can be a profit center for the University because their research grants include a large amount of overhead costs to pay the University for space and services, often more than these actually cost. The graduate teaching assistants who often interact with undergraduates are funded by graduate fellowships or from the training grant. Thus, it's likely much cheaper for the University to teach Science and Medicine than Philosophy (or perhaps Engineering or Technology), as it gets the teaching faculty for free or even makes a profit on them, instead of funding them from tuition and the state taxpayer.
Posted by Warren Terra on December 28, 2012 at 5:22 PM · Report this
4
I think the idea is that wealthier students can afford these degrees, while students of a lower class (excuse pun) can take out either larger loans or go for a cheaper degree. And while making STEM more affordable would help the businesses that hire these graduates, the Boeings and Microsofts can afford to recruit from out of state. If it means fewer opportunities for Washington residents, the Legislature seems fine with that.
Posted by Ebenezer on December 28, 2012 at 4:46 PM · Report this
DavidC 2
I'm Canadian so the issues are a bit different - but honestly I would prefer my tax dollars to go into subsidizing STEM degrees and not Liberal Arts. Community colleges offer all the same courses and for a lot less money - let the non-wealthy Liberal Arts taking students go there.
Posted by DavidC http://members.shaw.ca/karenanddavid/ on December 28, 2012 at 4:21 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 1
This could set up some terrible incentives. After all, it's not the degree that should be expensive, but individual classes. Soon every student's sorting the class catalog by price, and it's a race to the bottom. Goodbye small group philosophy (15 students per teacher? that's a fortune!), hello Basics in HTML (online course = cheap!). Goodbye Fluid Dynamics (wind chamber = expensive), hello Advanced Spreadsheets (ok, I don't even know that's a course).
Posted by Matt the Engineer on December 28, 2012 at 3:59 PM · Report this

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