Are Florida’s Leaders Inviting Another Catastrophe–This Time in Higher Ed?

Florida, in the news once again for its election woes, is also joining Texas and Virginia in the race to see how much havoc meddling university board members can create in the name of “reform.”

In Florida, the most controversial issue is “differentiated tuition,” a business-speak term to describe a plan to reduce tuition for STEM majors and others in Legislature-designated priority fields, while allowing tuition for students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences to increase.

(See discussion and links related to Differentiated Tuition, below.)

Florida Governor Rick Scott has expressed his admiration for the conservative push by Rick Perry in Texas to transform that state’s flagship schools into productivity machines aligned with the perceived economic needs of the state and business community. Like the recent fiasco in Virginia, these efforts stem, so to speak, from the brains of libertarian and entrepreneurial types who are all agog over the latest management trends. What they claim as their goal is “value” for the state and, occasionally, for students; what they desire is instrumental education on the cheap, paid for in part by gutting those pesky academic disciplines that examine values beyond the bottom line.

Florida Higher Ed Task Force Plan is not only poorly written in its current draft form but also ill-advised. It also has a confrontational, we-know-best tone, especially in its references to “academics.”

“A chasm…exists between the system’s colleges and universities and those who must make the difficult decisions in appropriating scare resources,” the plan says. “Many in the academy deny or outright reject the expectations for increased efficiencies and productivity as precursors to demonstrating value that is presumed, to the detriment of the institutions and systems, as self-evident.”

Despite the inelegance of the last sentence, it is more or less clear that the task force is upset with the academy. Furthermore, the task force wants the academy to know that the state’s Board of Governors does indeed have the final word in higher education: The Board is authorized “to operate, regulate, control, and be fully responsive for the management of the whole university system.”

The plan even slips in a criticism of health care as being one of the villains in causing college costs to rise, along with “the perceived demands by students for making ‘college a life-style, not just people getting an education.’”  And the state of North Carolina also receives a gratuitous slap as an allegedly spendthrift state “widely held as a paragon for [sic] higher education systems” yet “it leads Florida by only two percentage points in…the proportion of its citizens who hold associate degrees or higher.”

The lifestyle quote also appeared in a New York Times story that correctly pointed out that support jobs in all colleges, public and private, have been growing. But not all of that growth is directed at pampering students.

“The growth in support staff included some jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, like environmental sustainability officers and a broad array of information technology workers,” the Times reported. “The support staff category includes many different jobs, like residential-life staff, admissions and recruitment officers, fund-raisers, loan counselors and all the back-office staff positions responsible for complying with the new regulations and reporting requirements colleges face.” And not a few of those requirements have to do with documenting the metric-driven results dictated by governors and legislatures.

Differentiated Tuition

But what about the merits of differentiated tuition? The task force wants to lower tuition for “high-wage, high-demand (market determined demand) degree programs, as identified by the Legislature.” This phrase appears repeatedly, verbatim, throughout the draft report. The success of the plan will be measured by the following:

1. More degrees in “strategic areas of importance”;
2. Higher percentage of grads who become employed or who continue their education;
3. More grads who attain employment at a higher salary rate; and
4. More “efficiencies” that lower the cost for institutions and students.

The draft somewhat vaguely identifies the “important” degree programs: 111 in STEM subjects; 28 in Globalization (whatever that may be); 21 in health professions; 19 in education (but only in Math and Sciences); and 9 in security and emergency services.

For perspective on these ideas, we recommend Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Art Majors? , an article in the Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann; More STEM Majors Won’t Solve Higher Education’s Problems, an article by Elizabeth Popp Berman that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education; and Why STEM Is Not Enough (and why we still need the humanities) in the Washington Post, by Cathy N. Davidson, Paula Barker Duffy, Martha Wagner Weinberg, and Valerie Strauss.

“First, you need to take it on faith that the government is capable of divining which majors are going to be the most marketable year after year,” Weissmann writes.  “Second, you need to believe that there are a large number of talented undergrads who could hack it in these subjects, but are choosing easier majors instead.”

“Meanwhile,” Weissmann adds, “it’s not clear that hoards of potential engineers and computer scientists are shunning the campus lab in order to go read Baudelaire instead. Though I haven’t seen state-level data, the vast majority of bachelor’s degrees awarded in this country go to students who study business, science, engineering, and health. The kids today already approach college with a fairly pre-professional mindset.”

Berman notes that “there’s no reason to think this would help Florida economically. If the state wants to align higher education with the needs of business, it should take a look at surveys of employers, who indicate, year after year, that what they most want from college grads is “the ability to effectively communicate” and “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills”—classic hallmarks of a liberal arts education. And studies like Academically Adrift show that it’s the humanities and social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, that lead to measurable improvements in critical thinking.”

The Washington Post article cites Hunter Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities and the former president of both Cornell and the University of Iowa, as believing that the humanities and arts actually help contribute to alleviating our national STEM teacher and research crisis.

“Whereas a high percentage of students who come to college wanting to major in science and engineering drop out and go into business-related social sciences, this is not nearly so much the case at liberal arts colleges,” the Post says.

According to the Post, in the “nation’s most selective liberal arts colleges, a higher percentage of students go on to graduate and professional degrees in STEM fields than is the case at the nation’s major research universities. Integrated liberal arts knowledge, where STEM is a vital component of a larger curriculum that includes a range of literacies, creative expression, and the arts, seems to be ideal for developing future STEM teachers, practitioners, and researchers.”

The same can be said of honors colleges and programs in larger institutions, where the curriculum and “lifestyle” reflect the best in liberal arts education. Honors education does not imitate a factory operation designed to meet an instrumental, external demand but instead embraces the words of a renowned Greek philosopher, whose own method has become a model of effective pedagogy: “Education is the kindling of a flame,” Socrates said,” not the filling of a vessel.”

John Willingham, Editor

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