The questions about whether Florida truly needs more STEM graduates hasn’t dampened state lawmakers’ enthusiasm for encouraging more STEM degrees. The tuition discount proposal from the governor’s task force has a good chance of becoming law during the upcoming legislative session, according to Senate President Don Gaetz. Gaetz said the Republican-led Legislature strongly wants college graduates to be equipped with real job skills, though he acknowledged that STEM majors aren’t the only way to get there.
“It would be a mistake for us to worship at the altar of STEM, as though every STEM degree results in a job and every non-STEM degree doesn’t,” said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican. “That’s an oversimplification, and the facts don’t bear that out.”
The new STEM tuition proposal, if implemented, would run counter to a national trend of universities charging more for STEM courses, not less. Because of lab facilities and small class sizes, STEM courses are among the most expensive for colleges to teach. As it stands now, STEM majors are already subsidized by students in other subjects.
Almost a year ago, the presidents of UF and Florida State University asked the Legislature for permission to raise prices for STEM majors, but that request was denied.
But if the STEM discount tuition went into effect, there’s a chance the sheer difficulty of STEM majors would limit its impact. Retention of STEM students has long been a national problem, as students sometimes grow frustrated with a particularly challenging course and decide to switch majors. Math classes are a common stumbling block.
At Florida International University, where only about a third of students pass college algebra, Provost Douglas Wartzok said the school opened a math mastery lab this fall to boost student performance. Though FIU has about 7,500 undergraduate students majoring in STEM fields — and is the nation’s No. 1 producer of Hispanic STEM grads — Wartzok said he is following a “very balanced approach.” STEM degrees are encouraged, but so are other academic pursuits.
Wartzok had some reservations about making STEM degrees cheaper.
In an e-mail, Wartzok wrote that a broad liberal arts education prepares students for a lifetime of occupations by developing “critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and effective oral and written communication.”
“Most of the jobs our students are taking upon graduation didn’t exist when they started high school,” he wrote. “Hence if we focus them on the career needs of today without giving them a strong liberal arts foundation, they will be trained for jobs that won’t exist when they graduate.”
Statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Education show that the ability of STEM grads to find a job varies greatly by major. Among 2009-10 school year graduates, only 49 percent of those with a bachelor’s in biology were employed; for a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering, the number rose to 83 percent.
In the social sciences, anthropology grads reported a 49 percent employment rate, while 60 percent of psychology grads said they were employed.
The method of gathering such figures isn’t perfect, according to State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan. Students who take a job in another state aren’t counted. Neither are those who attend an out-of-state grad school.
Brogan said he could support a two-tiered tuition system, with STEM costing less, so long as it was implemented cautiously and with universities having some control. In the meantime, he said he’s working to better track the STEM areas where Florida is not producing enough graduates — and also those where the state is graduating too many.
In 2009-10, Brogan said a state analysis projected a need for 467 new industrial engineers. Florida state schools graduated 180.
At the other end of the spectrum were mechanical engineers, of which the state needed an additional 236. State universities more than tripled that number, graduating 847.
For a STEM tuition discount to work, Brogan said there needs to be a surgical approach that evaluates the market for each specific degree, without broad generalizations. And he warned that predicting future employment needs is an inexact science.
“Trying to look beyond the horizon gets to be a very fuzzy issue, very quickly,” Brogan said.