The first Florida House hearing on higher education budgeting shows part of why it is difficult to have a “STEM focus” in a public college and university system: money woes suck up all the oxygen in a room. In Florida, both the statewide faculty union and administrators have been talking about the need to invest in the state university system, especially for STEM, for several years. With the exception of political intrigue surrounding USF Polytechnic, very little has gotten done in the past half-decade. Before the session began, FSU physicist Paul Cottle predicted in an email to me that very little would get done with STEM in this session, and I have to agree. If it’s not the state budget, redistricting, or symbolic legislation for social conservative causes, very little is likely to happen this session.
A second reason: any effort to change college student behavior on a large scale requires persistence, and the current obsession with STEM counts as a fad unless it lasts another five years. Half a decade ago, all the “research for economic boost” talk in Florida focused on biomedicine. Five years from now, half the current membership of the Florida legislature will be gone from Tallahassee, there will be a new president at the national level, and who knows what the concern du jour will be.
A third reason why a STEM focus is so difficult: many fields are genuinely difficult. Matthew Yglesias may be correct for a small slice of faculty at research-focused universities, that they want to focus on research rather than teaching undergraduates, but I really don’t think physics faculty in many universities in Texas, Florida, or elsewhere prefer fewer than 10 graduates each year. They’d be happy to have plenty more who are successful, from what I can gather, but that desire for success is fairly important. So, too, the fact that there are variations in the number of majors in science fields argues strongly against Yglesias’s glib claim. Are physics faculty more into their research than biology faculty, whose departments have much larger undergraduate cohorts? I don’t think so, but they’d have to be if Yglesias were correct. The real reasons for the variation, I suspect: 1) being a physics major requires a willingness to go a few semesters beyond first-year calculus (and more than just enroll and pass); 2) biology is reasonably aligned to the premed course sequence; 3) physics is usually a third science course in high school, so fewer graduates are exposed to it before college.