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Pricing Out the Humanities
History professors at the University of Florida think their courses are plenty valuable, but they don't want them to be among the most expensive. And they are organizing to protest a gubernatorial task force's recommendation to charge more for majors without an immediate job payoff -- a recommendation that the historians fear could discourage enrollments.
History professors have organized a petition against one of the more controversial recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform: differential tuition that could be punitive to the humanities. They've garnered more than 1,300 names in a week, including those from places far beyond the Sunshine State.
"We, the undersigned faculty, have dedicated our careers to the common good of the State of Florida," the petition reads. "We believe that the institutional goals of our universities are not in conflict with state goals. We also know a great deal about the vital connection between higher education and a responsible and productive citizenry; in fact, this connection is at the very center of our profession. We trust that Governor Scott will recognize the pressing need for meaningful faculty input into future deliberations concerning the future of higher education in the State of Florida."
Quoting the task force's language on differential tuition, petition co-creator Norman Goda said, “The theory is that students in ‘non-strategic majors,’ by paying higher tuition, will help subsidize students in the ‘strategic’ majors, thus creating a greater demand for the targeted programs and more graduates from these programs, as well.”
Established in May by Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who has said he wants to run Florida’s education system more like a business, the task force includes legislators, businesspeople and educators appointed by various parties. It finalized its recommendations earlier this month. The governor is now reviewing the report, which divides reform into three different but interlinked areas: accountability, funding and governance.
Recommendations for accountability include a call for more metrics to determine university success and performance, while those for governance include allowing the state university system’s Board of Governors more control over funding (currently the state legislature holds much of that control). Funding recommendations call for non-uniform tuition among the state’s 12 universities and a further look into differential tuition among degree programs.
Although several models for differential tuition exist in higher education, the model endorsed by the task force would aim to hold in-state tuition rates for “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand (market determined strategic demand) degree programs” steady for at least three years, making them potentially more attractive to students than other majors. Although the task force report doesn’t officially recommend strategic majors, it names several possible categories previously identified by the Florida university system’s Board of Governors, including 111 in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); 28 programs in globalization; and 21 in the health professions. (Such degree programs currently account for 37 percent of degrees granted within the system, with a 21 percent increase during the past four years). Core humanities disciplines did not make the list.
Task force chairman Dale Brill, Florida Chamber Foundation president and Scott’s appointee to the group, said the recommendations were based on “logic,” rather than research into which degree programs have proven to be the most beneficial to individual students and state economies. Defining “strategic” and “non-strategic” programs ultimately will be the work of the state legislature, he said.
“The task force tried to identify innovative approaches to spreading limited resources to drive maximum benefit to the system,” Brill said. “Up until now, in that system, that money is invested evenly across the board with very little attention paid toward getting maximum return on that investment” for the 104 million taxpayers contributing to it.
Brill said he wondered why humanities professors felt targeted by a plan to improve the university funding system, which would improve the university system overall.
“If you improve the system without worrying about the professors in the system, in the end the system has more resources to invest,” he said.
But Lillian Guerra, one of Goda’s history colleagues at the University of Florida and a petition co-creator, said the task force plan lays the foundation for second-class degrees. Departments receive funding based on how many students enroll in courses, she said, so decreased humanities enrollment would lead to less funding for the department.
Damage to the department would damage the university overall, she added. “In the short term, I think we run the risk of demolishing our prestige as an institution, when so much of the institution’s prestige has been anchored in liberal arts.”
Goda said that in the long run, differential tuition could mean a less “richly educated” workforce. Students in strategic majors also could suffer from lack of a well-rounded education – something he said makes them “truly adaptable and employable over the course of their lives.”
Robert Townsend, deputy director of the American Historical Association, said the professional association was making its members aware of the Florida professors’ petition.
“I think there’s general agreement that it would not be helpful or positive for the history discipline,” he said of differential tuition, adding that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently announced he’s making similar forays into reforming state higher education.
In his Nov. 16 announcement, Walker said funding for technical colleges and the University of Wisconsin System must be linked to performance. "In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?"
Townsend said despite the recent trend toward more seemingly job-oriented degrees, which isn’t uncommon during slow economic periods, a history degree holds enduring value.
“There’s plenty of evidence that history as a major sets people up for a lot of different careers,” he said, including business. “You’re trained to think critically and use evidence and write about it. There are [bosses] who prefer that to those who are trained to do that narrowly, to think only about numbers, rather than about numbers in wider aspects and making use of them.”
According to a Georgetown University study based on 2010 Census data, recent history majors (ages 22-26) have a 10.2 percent unemployment rate, while more experienced history graduates without an advanced degree fare better at 5.8 percent unemployment. Overall, 9.4 percent of recent humanities and liberal arts graduates and 6.1 percent of their more experienced counterparts are unemployed. By comparison, 7.7 percent of recent life and physical science graduates are unemployed, as are 4.7 percent of older grads; in computers and mathematics, the rates were 8.2 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively.
While the study does show a link between STEM and other strategic degrees and lower unemployment, it cautions that "majors that are closely aligned with occupations can misfire." Because of the decline in construction, for example, recent architecture graduates have the highest rate of unemployment, 13.9 percent. By contrast, education, business, health care and the professional services have been relatively stable employers of recent graduates with related majors.
Science advocates also have opposed the Blue Ribbon proposal. Shirley Malcom, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs, called differential tuition “a difficult call.” But ultimately, she said, it pits different areas of an institution against each other, “where we as STEM people need the rest of the knowledge that is resident in the rest of the institution.”
Malcom argued for other ways to promote STEM, such as direct scholarships.
Student groups also have opposed the recommendation. José R. Soto, co-president of University of Florida Graduate Assistants United, helped organize a recent joint-press conference on the recommendations, along with the Gainesville Area Students for a Democratic Society, and is helping plan a rally before the university’s Board of Trustees meeting next week.
The doctoral candidate, who recently defended his dissertation in applied economics, said differential tuition could create a kind of brain drain away from Florida higher education, in which the state’s “best and brightest” qualifying for scholarships out of state leave to ensure a top-notch education. Additionally, Soto said, trying to forecast the job market to determine which degrees will be most lucrative in the future is misguided. “Any economist will tell you one of the hardest things you can do is predict the market; if you take it farther than a [certain period of time] in unknown territory.”
It’s unclear exactly when the recommendations could be considered by the Florida legislature, or which, if any, Scott will endorse. A spokeswoman said Scott “has made it clear he thinks Florida’s colleges and universities need to be affordable for the families of our state.” But the governor -- in-much discussed remarks last year about anthropology -- has seemed skeptical of the value of a number of liberal arts disciplines.
William Proctor, a task force and departing state House member who serves as chancellor of Flagler College in St. Augustine, said, “It may be premature to try to size that up. It won’t even get into committee hearings until [next year].” He also noted that while there was interest in differential tuition among his former colleagues, changes to higher education funding remain controversial in Florida. In April, Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed the school’s top research institutions – Florida State University and the University of Florida – to raise tuition.
Proctor also noted that the task force’s final report only recommends holding strategic degree tuition steady for a period of at least three years, while other differential tuition models could be adapted later. Even within the task force, he said, there was discussion as to whether to charge more for STEM and other strategic degrees because they can be more expensive for the university. (Schools throughout the country already have adopted that model, especially for degrees in engineering and business).
Still, Guerra, who specializes in Latin American history, said the proposals are disturbing seen through the lens of history. “The Cuban state in the [1960s and 1970s] began to promote technical fields and the hard sciences because those are the fields believed to generate wealth for the collective aspiration, as opposed to an individual meditation on ideas.”
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