Differential tuition for STEM fields (in either direction) is foolish policy

Earlier this weekend, FSU physics professor Paul Cottle lit into UF philosophy professor and Florida’s SUS faculty union leader Tom Auxter for an op-ed Friday in the Orlando Sentinel. I’ll spend little time on Paul Cottle’s stylistic argument that a 600-word column is a rhetorical non-starter if it spends the space criticizing current policy, other than to observe that an op-ed is short and generally has to have one function.1 Instead, let’s focus on the policy question at hand: the state task force that suggested STEM-field undergraduates should have lower tuition than all other undergraduates. Cottle has warmed to that suggestion, despite both practical and logical problems with the proposal.

  1. The problem is not that students are uninterested in STEM fields but that they are unprepared. How many undergraduates in Florida start out wanting to be doctors and absolutely certain they are going to be doctors… until they hit calculus and organic chemistry? In fact, a very shrewd science faculty member in Florida suggested a few years ago a policy that would correctly target the incentives for coming out of high school more prepared: “Requiring precalculus and a full program of science courses including biology, chemistry and physics for Bright Futures eligibility would provide a strong incentive for students to more fully prepare for the fields with the most promising economics prospects.” And for high school counselors to make sure that students were STEM-ready. That smart faculty member who focused on preparation before college rather than minor incentives through tuition in college? Paul Cottle.
  2. There is too little evidence that differential tuition would drive many students to consider STEM careers, all other issues considered. A Kevin Stange conference paper presented this fall suggests that differential tuition may be swamped by other factors. That fits what undergraduates tell me, that Florida tuition is so low that room and board, books, and lab fees together add up to much more than an annual tuition bill. The differential book cost in STEM courses could swamp the differential tuition just by itself.
  3. Where there is an effect, it could probably be in older liberal-arts disciplines rather than in the majors that are much larger than either philosophy or physics. And if there are differential reductions, it is the smaller programs that would be more vulnerable to the effects of those shifts. Relatively few students major in English: 4% of all first majors for the 2000-01 through 2009-10 academic years in Florida universities were English. In contrast, the majority (52%) were in the following fields: Business, Education, “Health Professions”, Psychology, and Communications/Journalism. But I suspect that if there is an effect on majors, differential tuition would most harm fields such as English, fine arts, history, foreign languages, philosophy, and area studies, each of which is less than 5% of all majors–and 2% or less for everything in that list but English and fine arts. You cannot dramatically boost physics enrollment by stealing from philosophy. But you can ruin a philosophy program.
  4. While the benefits of differential undergraduate tuition are highly uncertain, there is a definite cost to differential tuition at the undergraduate level: Financial aid offices would have a much more complex task in making sure students have the correct amount of aid. Because financial aid is based on a formulaic cost of attendance, any differential tuition at the undergraduate level would have to figure into formulaic cost of attendance… and any time a student changes majors, that will affect financial aid. As a department chair, I’ve had my eyes opened a bit into how difficult it is for a financial aid office to individualize decisions. Want to make it much more expensive for a public college or university to run a financial aid office? Dramatically increase the number of customized decisions that have to be made.
  5. I can just wait to see the foolish games students try to play to reduce tuition under this. Ack.
  6. Tom Auxter is correct that this differential-tuition proposal obscures the basic fact that the legislature has undercut all of public higher education in Florida for the past half-decade. Giving students a minor incentive to choose STEM fields will not help if there is not enough in a university budget to teach more physics majors well, something Cottle knows from his advocacy of more intimate classes in his discussions of studio physics classes. Weak budgets are not something that the Fates gave us. It’s a choice the legislature made.

There are two obvious policy choices to boost STEM enrollment, and neither requires fiddling with differential tuition:

  1. Require students to be “STEM-ready” to be eligible for Bright Futures, with the type of requirement Cottle proposed a few years ago.
  2. Boost state higher education funding in general, so that you do not need more giant undergraduate intro classes to cross-subsidize the sciences.

There are a bunch of other options that are less obvious and whose benefits for STEM enrollment are uncertain, such as reconfiguring tutoring and other support for students in calculus and intro science classes. But differential tuition? It’s about 90th on the list of the top 100 policy ideas for STEM education. We have better options in Florida and should use them.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader, and sign up for my irregular newsletter below!


  1. Cottle is also assuming that Auxter never advocates specific policies, an interesting and incorrect assumption. []

One response to “Differential tuition for STEM fields (in either direction) is foolish policy”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    The concept of a differential rate was first introduced by Frederick Taylor in a 1895 presentation to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

    The paper was “A Piece Rate System,” and described reforms at the Midvale Steel Company from 1883. The key issue for Taylor that merited his attention was the so-called wage problem — scientific management, as his approach latter became known as (1910 on), was for Taylor, the means for determining equitable wages.

    As in the present case, the manipulation of worker payments (or charges in tuition) is used to motivate (workers/students).

    An oddity of history is that engineers developed costing techniques that included the differential rate on their way to learning how to efficiently manage large scale operations.

    Time and motion studies, the standardization of work performance, equipment use and maintenance, and the standardization of wages, were central to the “scientific” management movement.

    Differential rates for Florida’s postsecondary schools follows naturally from its increasing Taylorization — the standardization of teacher performance, setting standards for student achievement and anticipated costs, has already begun at secondary level. From an efficiency standpoint, the determination of expected outcomes, and their improvement are central. This is, on its face, the engineering of human society.

    As with Taylorization, these innovations will (or have they already?) be championed by a new elite within education — professional accounting and cost accountants were a rarity before Taylorism spread. They will move to fill what they see as an opportunity niche, much as community colleges provided a career ladder opportunity for disenchanted high school teachers one-hundred years ago. Eventually, of course, they will form their own professional association to extend and protect their gains, and to legitimate their position within public education.