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.