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Should a Humanities Degree Cost More?

January 14, 2013

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on June 29, 2011. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on June 29, 2011. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is a guest contributor to UConn Today. For his previous posts, click here.

Among the recommendations of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s blue ribbon panel on state higher education reform is a proposal to charge lower tuition to majors deemed of strategic importance to the state’s economic growth (see recommendation 2 under “Funding,” page 22). In practice, this would mean a tuition discount for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields. By discounting the tuition cost of such majors, the panel argues, the state can ensure that its investment in higher education has the highest payoff.

As Scott said, “I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

As dean of a college of liberal arts and sciences, my first reaction to this proposal should probably have been horror at the casual dismissal of the humanities and social sciences as “non-strategic” and, by inference, worthless. Instead, perhaps since I spend so much time wrestling with the college’s budget instead of thinking about intellectual matters, what first struck me was how odd the economics of this proposal are.

Indeed, we already offer an enormous tuition discount to students to encourage them to major in STEM fields. Every undergraduate at UConn pays the same tuition, even though the cost of training a Philosophy or English major is a fraction of the cost of preparing a Physics or Engineering student. This inevitably means that the English majors – whose parents, after all, pay the same taxes as everyone else – receive a smaller share of the state’s subsidy of UConn’s operations than the science and engineering majors do.

In addition to this state subsidy, there are market incentives in place to encourage students to pursue certain STEM degrees. As this Wall Street Journal table shows, students who major in Engineering, Physics, and Math have both relatively high starting salaries and relatively high mid-career salaries compared to other majors. These higher salaries represent the market’s view of the value in exchange of these degrees, and the simplest explanation of this view is that such degrees are relatively scarce among all college graduates.

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.


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