States subsidize college for many of their residents. Generally this has been perceived as a good trade-off: a state (and its taxpayers) benefit in a variety of ways by having a more educated populace and workforce. But with budgets under duress and an overall squeeze in higher education, Florida is asking an interesting question: should the state subsidize all college degrees to the same extent?
Tuition would be lower for students pursuing degrees most needed for Florida’s job market, including ones in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as the STEM fields. […] students in fields such as psychology, political science, anthropology, and performing arts could pay more because they have fewer job prospects in the state.
This is a debate that goes far beyond tuition. As I have argued previously, majors matter: earnings for college graduates depend considerably on what one studies, and one of the major issues of the student debt crises is that we have too many young adults saddled with debt beyond a reasonable level given what they are likely to earn in their chosen fields. It is neither responsible lending nor good public policy to create an economic mismatch between what a degree costs and what its recipient can expect to receive in return.
There is a similar mismatch in teacher hiring. In many districts, due mostly to collective bargaining agreements, teachers are paid the same no matter what subject they teach, and regardless of the supply of qualified candidates. If a district has 100 candidates willing to teach art, and just 1 willing to teach science, they are required to pay them both the same. Even if the science teacher has a competing offer from private industry, there is no flexibility in the salary structure. Teacher compensation believes it can make supply and demand invisible.
In many ways the discussion in Florida is simply recognizing that supply and demand exist. For state residents, tuition at public colleges and universities would still be lower than at private institutions. But if we agree that it is in the interests of the state (and its taxpayers) to have educated citizens, it also makes sense that the state should be able to influence the type — and not just the number — of degrees. If there is a shortage of nurses, it is hard to understand why anyone would want a greater number of cartographers (yes, even the cartographers themselves).
And recognize again that tuition is subsidized based on the value to the state — not the financial return on the degree. While the initial focus is on STEM subjects, some public school districts have difficulty hiring teachers, and if there is a substantial shortage, there is no reason why these degrees might not be subsidized. But if there is not a shortage, it makes little sense to have an excess of teachers while lacking engineers. Indeed, one criticism about teaching credentials is that they are among the easiest degrees to obtain and are subject to rampant grade inflation. In those cases, it seems particularly mistaken for a state to offer teaching majors the same subsidy as degrees that provide more economic value both to their recipients and to their fellow citizens.