Friday, March 09, 2012

Paying For Higher Ed/Considerations of the "Public Good" of Higher Ed

Some very interesting points from the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
Rick Scott, Florida's governor, created a firestorm recently when he suggested that Florida ought to focus more of its education spending on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and less on liberal arts. Scott got this one right: We should focus higher-education dollars on the fields most likely to benefit everyone, not just the students who earn the degrees. Scott, however, missed another part of the equation: We need to focus more attention on the students who are being left behind, the millions of college and high-school dropouts.

Over the past 25 years, the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in STEM subjects has remained more or less constant...

In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985.

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don't require college degrees, and those graduates don't get a big income boost from having gone to college.

Most important, graduates in the arts, psychology, and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth. Economic growth is not the only goal of higher education, but it is one of the main reasons taxpayers subsidize higher education through direct government college support, as well as loans, scholarships, and grants. The potential wage gains for college graduates is reason enough for students to pursue a college education. We add subsidies to the mix, however, because we believe that education has positive spillover benefits for society. One of the biggest of those benefits is the increase in innovation that highly educated workers theoretically bring to the economy.

Thus, an argument can be made for subsidizing students in fields with potentially large spillovers, such as microbiology, chemical engineering, and computer science. But there is little justification for subsidizing sociology, dance, and English majors. (all boldface is mine--Darren)


mazenko said...

An additional concern is the brain drain toward finance and law school. Many of our best and bright have been lured into accounting and finance with dreams of hedge fund billions. After that, top students head toward law school. That's a problem ... and it's a situation that doesn't exist in other top countries' schools.

mazenko said...

I will add, however, countries don't just support higher ed because it brings economic growth. The benefits to society from a highly educated population also result in lower crime and social ills, higher marriage rates, lower drug rates, better physical and emotional health, a greater sense of community and altruism, etc.

In the early days of the republic, the support for higher ed wasn't about tech, science, and economic growth. It was about being purveyors of culture. And, many of our best and the brightest - and greatest leaders - were studying the classics and philosophy and latin. It was about support great thinkers. And, people like Steve Jobs have spoken passionately about how the liberal arts classes truly fueled his drive and creativity.

I certainly support the basic arguments about STEM. But to argue that we shouldn't support history, English, and other liberal arts students because they won't make enough money to help the economy is weak. It's not just the science majors who are contributing to lower crime, fewer social problems, and stronger communities.

Darren said...

If your argument is that going to college makes you less likely to be a criminal, I think that's a very shallow argument. I also wonder about correlation vs. causation.

Did you not read this part? "In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985." I think we probably have enough visual and performing art students to make the country a wonderful place--we don't need to subsidize more of them. And that's really what it comes down to, is the *taxpayer* getting his/her money's worth from subsidizing someone else in pursuit of a degree that will allow that second person to make more money!

Darren said...

By the by, "in the early days of the republic", how many of those great liberal arts studiers had their college paid for by the government?

Later in the republic, *I* had my liberal arts education paid for by the government :-) Did the taxpayer get what he/she wanted?

mazenko said...

It's not shallow, D. It's statistics and extrapolation. And, correlation matters, as you occasionally argue.

A nation that doesn't support the liberal arts in at least some measure that it does the science is risking cultural death. Read some Brave New World and Neil Postman. I'm not opposed to emphasizing math, science, and technology.

But arguing that public higher ed shouldn't also support the arts is truly shallow.

Darren said...

As usual, you miss the point--I believe intentionally.

maxutils said...

Public education is always good. I would much rather offer additional scholarships for those in need, and pay for it by admitting fewer unqualified students in to the system. Let's face it -- when about half the students who go to UC and CASU require remedial math, or English, or both, they shouldn't have been admitted. They are probably also those most likely to enter the saturated, less useful to society majors. There's plenty of room here for savings if we just administered the writing and math placement tests before they arrived on campus, rather than after.