College Costs: Would Tuition Discounts Get More Students to Major in Science?

To steer more students into high-paying fields, Florida is considering freezing tuition rates for certain majors. Would it work?

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How much money would it take to get an English major to switch to engineering? Would a $1,000 discount on tuition every year do the trick? What about $5,000? What if switching majors not only reduced students’ debt load but also made it much more likely that they would find a job after graduation? Would that be enough to change their mind?

These are questions Florida is debating as it looks for ways to steer more students into high-paying fields that employers are eager to cultivate. Governor Rick Scott’s task force on higher education recently suggested freezing tuition at state schools in “strategic areas” like engineering, science, health care and technology, while letting the cost of humanities and other majors rise.

(MORE: TIME Oct. 29, 2012, Cover Package: Reinventing Higher Education)

The Florida proposal is a new twist on an old idea. Instead of increasing tuition across the board, many universities over the past decade have started charging more for majors with courses that are more costly to provide. Degrees in biology and engineering, for example, typically involve smaller class sizes, higher faculty salaries and cutting-edge labs with expensive equipment, so universities look to students to foot more of the bill. Today some 45% of large public research universities differentiate their pricing this way. At the University of Texas at Austin, which started charging different tuition rates in 2004, engineering students pay $5,107 each semester, while liberal-arts majors pay $4,673. (That’s for in-state residents; for out-of-staters, the tuition costs jump to $17,189 and $15,878, respectively.)

Kevin Stange, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, studies the outcomes of differential tuition and has found that higher prices tend to dissuade students. The generally accepted consensus is that a $1,000 change in costs is associated with a 5 percentage point difference in enrollment rates. Similarly, a June study from Hanover Research found that for every $100 increase in tuition, enrollment decreased by 0.5% to 1%.

“When institutions start charging more for engineering and business, we do see a decline in the number of students pursuing those degrees,” Stange said. But he thinks it’s unlikely that lowering tuition will persuade huge numbers of people to major in such rigorous, technical fields. “Getting humanities majors to become engineering majors is probably a stretch.”

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Past attempts by the government to push students toward the sciences and math have had underwhelming results. In 2005 Congress approved a government grant program, known as the National SMART grants, that was designed to use additional financial aid as a carrot to encourage more low-income students to major in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Qualifying students could receive as much as $4,000 a year on top of their Pell Grants. But getting low-income students into STEM fields was tough — the program never met its participation targets and was cut in 2010–11.

“People tend to pursue what they’re most comfortable with, so lower-income students are drawn toward teaching and social sciences,” says Tom Mortenson, a policy analyst at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “You don’t bump into engineering by accident. It requires a serious commitment to education and a more structured path to get there.”

Motivating students to pursue degrees in technical fields remains an uphill battle, despite increasing demand for STEM majors. A White House report released in February estimated that the U.S. will need 1 million additional STEM graduates over the next decade in order to fill the growing number of jobs that require those skills, yet student interest remains low. The report, drafted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, found that fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in STEM fields complete a STEM degree.

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Many prospective college students aren’t even considering studying math or science. An online survey commissioned by the University of Sciences in Philadelphia and conducted in April by Harris Interactive found that 51% of high schoolers weren’t interested in pursuing careers in the sciences or health care, 21% said they felt they were not good at the subjects and 16% said they did not feel ready to study science or health care in college. “The problem is not that students are uninterested in STEM fields but that they are unprepared,” Sherman Dorn, a professor in the College of Education at the University of South Florida, wrote in a blog post. “How many undergraduates in Florida start out wanting to be doctors and are absolutely certain they are going to be doctors until they hit calculus and organic chemistry?”

Cheaper tuition might motivate some students to tough it out, but Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, urges schools and policymakers to proceed with caution. “There is some evidence that external incentives lower internal motivation,” he says. “There’s a danger if people are doing something just because it’s cheaper. Engineering is a very challenging field. People need to be really into it — it’s not something you can do just for the money.”

34 comments
papaya292
papaya292

An unknown career choice in the healthcare field that is in serious need of new professionals is clinical laboratory science.  Unlike working in a research lab, it does not require a master's or Ph.D.  You can work as a clinical laboratory scientist with a bachelor's degree + 1 year internship in a hospital lab.  The pay is pretty good, too.  I make twice as much as my husband was making in biotech.  Note the "was" because he was going nowhere in that field with a bachelor's degree!

19shane
19shane

Student debt is stunting the growth of the economy. Student loans have increased by 275% over past decade. As the next generation graduates from college, they are plagued by insurmountable debt that places demands on their income, limiting their ability to spend their earnings in ways that stimulate the economy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRA9ndc1pCM

TaylorDeree
TaylorDeree

I like the idea, but it does seem as though it would only encourage students to sign up for the major without actually having any passion for the field.  

Nyaya
Nyaya

At the rete cost of science education is going and the research funding situation is dwindling I as a scientist would not recommend any student to do any type of science except IT. I do not recommend any student to do any thing is biology agriculture maths physics chemistry or environmental or earth sciences. You may get a job today but there is no guarantee that you will have a job in 10 years time. People even when they publish have go begging cap in hand to get research funding. Private sector does some but much of the biotechnology work will be done by equipment and not humans so no entry level jobs. Apart from that even if you slog for a PhD there is no real future. I suggest to future students you are better off doing some business to provide a service or develop a product. Do not at any cost depend on the govt of any country or universities. Teaching will go digital and fewer teachers will be needed. Set your passion aside and get on with your life without much loans. I have been in the science field for a long time however the changing scenario will not allow students to remain in jobs for a long time.

prefontainenike
prefontainenike

After 5 years and 100K in student loans I graduated from a good program with a major in molecular biology (3.1 GPA).  I had numerous job offers out of school but the pay was awful. After working 3 years in a biotech lab in Boston i was making 45K.  Last year I left for a data analyst position at a major business. I now make 70K. No one I know without a masters in science makes close to what I make. I was faced with a choice. Live with my parents and put off marriage to pay off my student loans or get a job that pays more.  Yes the difficult classes make most Math & Science majors take an extra year and that makes you take more loans...but it is the miserable pay in all non-engineering science fields that make it a waste of time. Right out of school all of my friends were making at least 10K more than I was. The whole field isn't worth the effort. If you like science make sure you become an engineer.

Wall Street Journal- Salaries by major.  BIO is just above english and below history

http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degrees_that_Pay_you_Back-sort.html

BobJan
BobJan

If you want a good/great job after college with any degree just change your name to Romney, Kennedy, Clinton, Biden or any of the other people in government.

AdamSmith1
AdamSmith1

After working for 25 years for somebody else I decided it was time for a change, trading was the answer for me because I need to work from home. I say stop working for somebody else and make your own money .Check out the website Traders Superstore, just Google them you should be able to find them, these guys are really doing it right and make you wonder why everybody isn't like them.

JonDivine
JonDivine like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Better to have few good scientists than to have many bad ones.

DavidStrayer
DavidStrayer like.author.displayName 1 Like

Without wanting to discourage people who are interested in the sciences in any way, did anyone look to see what kinds of jobs are available to people in the sciences?  

Currently, hiring in chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, etc., is abysmal.  Research in all sciences, supported by the government has been at historically low levels, in terms of percentages of investigator-initiated grant proposals funded.  Graduate schools are going begging.  Students with bachelor's degrees are almost unemployable, and need (at the least) masters degrees or, better, doctoral degrees.  Only ... once they've got those degrees, there are no jobs.  (Engineering may be different; what I'm saying applies only to the sciences.)

Faculty in science in higher education are hired, retained and promoted not on the basis of teaching commitment or time, but rather on the basis of ability to do the very research that the government isn't funding.  Neither younger nor older faculty can compete effectively for grant support for research when the NIH only funds 5% of investigator-initiated projects.  So faculty can do little other than write more and more applications with less and less chances of being funded.

Yes, we should have more scientists, mathematicians, etc., but where on earth will they be employed?  Who will teach them?  

Maybe we should think a little more about what our employment goals as a nation are, rather than blithely saying that we need to train more scientists for jobs that aren't there.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@DavidStrayer That sort of depends on the individual and the specific discipline.  You're right that trying to get a good science job WITH JUST A BACHELOR'S DEGREE is tough.  On the other hand, if you stay in school to get at least a master's, jobs open up.  Why?  Because, frankly, most of the jobs are too hard for an inexperienced person with only the basic bachelor's level classes to do well.  Getting either more formal training (via a masters/PhD) or practical training (via experience in the workplace) is needed to do most jobs.  Unfortunately, most places don't want to hire someone they're going to have to train (ie: drag along like dead weight) for two or more years before they're fully useful.  Thus the value of a master's degree. 

Also, the precise major is important.  There are a lot more jobs available for plant geneticists than their are for ecologists, for example.

For the record, this is based on the biology experience of my two sisters, and the chemistry experience of my husband.  All of whom had no difficulty at all finding jobs... once they had their PhDs.

EricSchiffer
EricSchiffer

Great news, hoping that this will see more development in the future. I have taught life sciences to middle school students as part of Yale's Science Education Outreach Program (SEOP), and encouraging kids to study science at an early age makes them more interested to get science majors in college. If this will be implemented nationwide, it will be great news for all. -Eric Schiffer

suupasugoi
suupasugoi

How did we come about subsidizing worthless humanities degrees anyway?

Commenter24601
Commenter24601

An idea like this could work, but the schools should really consider implementing a 1 semester or even 1 year boot camp where qualified profs teach math and science to the incoming students. Most HS math/science teachers are a joke and it is unfortunately very likely that the kids will not be able to handle the coursework. 

It would also help to curve non-engineering courses and increase the workload in non-engineering courses. There are significant social and academic penalties for going into engineering that could be eliminated by leveling the playing field (less free time and a tougher grade scheme).  

A final note: schools should also play up the near universal appreciation of STEM majors in the real world. Wall St, schools, large companies, and even law firms prefer STEM majors. It really doesn't close any doors, except perhaps a pure academic track in a liberal arts discipline. Most HS students think STEM majors are destined to end up like Dilbert and changing that perception is a simple matter of marketing. 

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

There is more of a demand for engineers and computer science majors than science majors.  So tuition discounts for undergraduate engineering and computer science majors is recommended but not for science majors until they are at the graduate level.

dobermanmacleod
dobermanmacleod

"Engineering is a very challenging field. People need to be really into it — it’s not something you can do just for the money.”

Using that logic, why would somebody even enter the field when it costs so much money to be educated and is so challenging?  I'll tell you what A MAJORITY of students cite as their reason: money (specifically the financial rewards).  Purists like the above are the same that don't want to give public school financial incentives to stay in school or do well in their studies.  Here is the maxim that ought to be cited: "You get what you pay for."

JennyZilga
JennyZilga like.author.displayName 1 Like

Absolutely not, authorities are clueless.   Why does Asia have so many STEM but US not?  Nothing to do with pay or lower tuition.  Everything to do with social status, acceptance, appreciation and recognition.

NeuroJoe
NeuroJoe

As a college faculty member in Biology, this could lead to a nightmare scenario for freedom of course selection, which can already be difficult for students. Would the administration mandate that every course has to be major restricted since there are pricing differences? A big part of college is new experiences. Will STEM majors no longer be able to dabble in the liberal arts outside of a limited set of core requirements because they would be seen as trying to cheat the system?

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

@NeuroJoe I would assume that the course requirements for graduation would not be changed. "Dabbling" would still be required.

adnan7631
adnan7631

Excuse me, but exactly where are the jobs? Medical schools are not taking more students. My cousin (who has a master's in engineering) watched as her co-workers were let go one by one. If you go into Biology, what jobs are there? You can go into research which doesn't pay well. You could teach, though that also does not pay well. Same for a BS in chemistry. Where are the jobs?

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@adnan7631 There aren't many jobs in most areas of biology, because there are a lot of people with degrees in biology.  Ditto with parts of chemistry.  Frankly, it's the EASY areas where it's hard to find jobs.  Harder areas are still desperate for people.

You want a job in bio?  Get some experience programming computers along with your degree, and then go work for a geneticist.  Plenty of jobs there.  Of course, you'll have to be comfortable in computer science and higher level math... which most biologists aren't.

You want a job in chem?  Get some experience working with lab machines like mass spectrometers, including the ability to fix them when they break.  Learn to run a lab and solve problems, along with knowing the chemistry it takes to make sense of the analysis once you're done.  Plenty of jobs there.  Of course, you'll have to be comfortable with statistics, machinery, and be good with your hands... which most chemists aren't.

For the record, chem and bio are the two general fields in STEM where a lot more graduates are NOT needed.  Things look a lot different from the perspective of a PhD-trained engineer, like myself.  I know of NO competent engineering graduates who didn't find a good job within a year, especially if they got their masters or PhD (which is almost necessary in order to get a firm understanding of a lot of the complex subjects).  The only ones I know who had trouble were, frankly, the ones who everyone in their classes KNEW weren't very good.  I realize things are different in other majors, biology in particular, but please don't assume that your experiences represent the rest of STEM.  Engineering and physics, in particular, can use more competent people -- and that's DESPITE some jobs going overseas.  The ability to do mathematical or computer analysis/design is still highly valued and isn't going anywhere.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin like.author.displayName 1 Like

I can see both sides of this issue.  When I was a high school senior, I was at the top of my class, very good at math/science, but also had a lot of interest and competence in other subjects.  I seriously considered the following majors:  astronomy, aerospace engineering, architecture, economics, and music composition.

Today, I'm a PhD engineer working as an oceanographer.  I still play my flute and sing, I draw and do origami for fun, and I keep abreast of current events and how macro-economics plays a role in them.  I am happy where I am, but I'm also sure I'd have been happy and successful as a composer or architect.  And, frankly, I'd have had to put forth a lot less effort, based on my comparisons of homework time with my music/art/econ-major friends in undergrad.

Frankly, a lot of other smart kids are in the same boat I was.  They can do a LOT of things well, and they're interested in a wide selection of topics.  If you make going to engineering school both harder AND more expensive, they're more likely to become architects or musicians or whatever their other interests lie in.  Conversely, if you make it cheaper -- or better yet, give merit-based scholarships in particular needed STEM fields -- they're more likely to pick the harder course. 

So no, an english major who struggled through algebra 2 in high school won't become a chemistry major just because it's cheaper.  But for those who COULD be either an english major or a chemistry major, the price difference might be enough to motivate.

RaymondArrayWang
RaymondArrayWang like.author.displayName 1 Like

@JenniferBonin I totally agree with this.  As a graduating CS major at a top school, I was also drawn to my major because I got a full merit scholarship to do engineering at my school.  That's why I did it instead of another major.

However, I do want to temper this with what I see.  A lot of my smart friends from high school could have gone into engineering or the sciences, but with the exception of computer science, the opportunities are just not there.  They can do anything they want, but these days ambitious and smart students swarm to high finance (investment banking and the like) and computer science (at least those around the Bay Area).  We could all have been successful in almost any major, but we want to have careers that pay well and have prestige.  

A lot of the basic sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, and even many of the other engineering majors) pay fairly low and people see them as glorified technicians.  Why would anyone work their tail off to get a BS in civil engineering when you have stereotyped as a weird nerd that stays in his mother's basement all day.  People can complain all they want about not having enough science majors here in the US, but when it comes down to it.  

A)  They don't pay well enough to justify the much-harder work.

B)  Society doesn't see engineers and scientists as awesome rockstars.  They are lovable geeks at best and strange creatures at worst.

When it comes down to it, would you get an engineering or science degree just because you really like science?  If you do, then you belong with the current crop of engineers and scientists.  Otherwise, don't bother.  Just not worth it.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@RaymondArrayWang  There's a lot of truth in what you say, I agree.  Engineering school is HARD.  Far, far harder than business school, for example.  (And if anyone doubts that, just go to any major university and look to see who spends more time on homework versus at parties.)  And you're right, we don't get paid enough for it or get enough respect.  Though I tend to look at it the other way around.  It's not that way aren't paid enough.  It's that people get paid waaaaay too much to work on Wall Street, where they are playing the game but producing nothing. 

So yeah, you're right that if what you want is an easy job which pays a lot of money, engineering isn't the right place for you.  If you want a job which challenges you and pays a steady, respectable salary, however, it might be.

Tedm
Tedm

I started with a science degree and didn't finish it. Got something else instead. Samian was spot on with his comment.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

@Tedm Many science (e.g., Chemistry and Biology) majors picked those majors because they plan on going to medical school.  But then they don't get accepted, and have no real interest in pursuing a PhD, and struggle to find jobs.

Samian
Samian like.author.displayName 1 Like

The New York Times answered this a while back in a great article, "Why Science Majors Change their Minds":

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/education/edlife/why-science-majors-change-their-mind-its-just-so-darn-hard.html?pagewanted=all


I had once written an editorial that argued that grades in STEM majors were too deflated, and actually needed to be inflated. Lowered GPAs affect scholarships, academic standing, and in some cases employability upon graduation. Needless to say, some of the engineering professors who read that didn't take it too well.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@Samian I agree that STEM classes are generally much harder than most other classes (I'm an engineer, for the record).  But I've never once known a competent engineering student who felt grades needed to be falsely inflated.  True, we grow used to getting 70-80% on tests and being happy with it.  And it's a heck of a lot easier to get a B in a fluids class than a music class.  But so what?  Since every single engineering school I know grades roughly in that same, more difficult way, the future bosses of today's students don't hold a B against them. 

When you come down to it, I'd rather have a challenging class that I struggle with and get an A- in, than an easy class that I can get an A+ in without half trying.  For the record, that "not half-trying" was my experience both in elementary/high school AND in the vast majority of my non-engineering classes in college.  Why is encouraging smart people NOT to think considered a good thing, precisely?  Just so we can get more As and fewer Bs?

Samian
Samian

@JenniferBonin @Samian You make some good points. And that's partly why I think engineering programs should become admissions-only professional tracks, like medical school or dental school. One should be absolutely committed to engineering before going into the field, rather than just 'trying it out' by majoring it for a year and realizing that a 19 year-old is not cut out for it.

The problem with the recommendations Gov. Scott's task force make is that it doesn't take into account the nature of undergraduate educations. My BA degree was in History, but I took a couple of engineering courses in college after being routinely prodded by Mom to do so.  Got C's in them and realized it wasn't for me. But my point is that even if I *had* gotten As in those courses and really started liking Engineering, I wouldn't have been able to get a BSE degree along with my BA in 4 years.

A lot of engineering majors require at least 3 full years of coursework, plus a senior-year internship or externship. I had taken those engineering courses too late (my junior year).  In other words, humanities majors can't "switch into" engineering fields and expect to graduate anywhere near on time unless they get lucky and make that decision in their freshman year. Engineering tracks have too much depth to switch into later on in a collegiate career.

RaymondArrayWang
RaymondArrayWang like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Samian @JenniferBonin Totally disagree with this.  I wouldn't have gone into engineering if it was a professional only track.  Keep in mind medical or dental school has huge payoffs at the end, which drives lots of people to it.  Engineering doesn't pay nearly as well and seeing as the best engineers tend to be well-balanced people, who likely wouldn't want to be locked into engineering.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@Samian @JenniferBonin Ah, but again, if you'd made engineering an admissions-only track, I might have been less likely to go into it, as a high schooler.  Because you'd have been limiting my options, in the sense that as an 18-year-old, I wasn't 100% sure I wanted to be an engineer.  How could I know, having never done it?  At the time, I had a lot of other interests (and capabilities) in non-STEM subjects as well.  I wouldn't have been thrilled to have been committed to a major or even a group of majors before I'd even taken a single class in them.  And I know several smart people who got decent grades in their first 1-2 years of engineering classes, then decided they didn't really like it and switched to other majors.  The reverse is much, much rarer, though.  Which is why I don't see how requiring an early commitment in STEM would really help much, frankly.

As for getting dual-majors, you CAN do it.  I've a friend who dual majored in computer engineering and clarinet performance.  Really.  It took him 7 years to do it, given the utter lack of overlap of classes, but he did.  Why would you EXPECT to be able to get both a degree in engineering and one in (say) music, in the same four years as EITHER of those degrees usually take?

And yes, if you don't take calc and physics your freshman year, then try to switch into engineering your second, it's going to take you an extra year to graduate.  But again, that's something you hit in a lot of majors -- music comes to mind again, since I know a lot about that.  The only difference is that most other majors require fewer classes, so if you're willing to work hard, you can squeeze three normal years of study into two packed-full years.  Since it's normal for engineers to take 15-18 credits every semester anyhow, you couldn't do that, and thus it will take an extra year if you (effectively) start late.  Again, I don't really consider this a bad thing, just a fact of life.

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