Is Tuition by Major a Good Idea?

A Florida state task force on education has just released a recommendation to adjust tuition, by major.

“Tuition would be lower for students pursuing degrees most needed for Florida’s job market, including ones in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as the STEM fields,” writes Scott Travis of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Students in other majors — psychology and the performing arts, for example — would pay more.  “The purpose would not be to exterminate programs or keep students from pursuing them. There will always be a need for them,” Dale Brill, the task force chair, told Travis. “But you better really want to do it, because you may have to pay more.”

Here‘s how Alex Taborrak (of Marginal Revolution) sees the plan:

The task force has the right idea but the right way to target subsidies is not to the job market per se (let alone Florida’s job market), wages already reflect job market needs. Subsidies instead should be targeted to fields where education has the greatest positive spillovers, benefits that spill over wages and flow to the public at large. Overall, this likely means subsidizing the STEM fields more than anthropology which is why the taskforce has the right idea. If the task force wants to explain the idea, however, they should make it clear that the goal is to focus subsidies on those fields where education most benefits the taxpayer.

Readers, what do you think?


What's hot today may not be hot 4 years from now. And, pray tell, who are the judges telling us which majors are of "most benefit" to society? This is going to pit everyone against one another and push students into majors that they may not even want or even have a chance to be good at, if the "price is right." Not a viable concept, in my opinion.


Given that the long-term earning power of people in these majors is lower than the earning power of STEM majors, I think the students are already paying a lot for their degrees.


It seems like you could do a better job calibrating this by (i) decreasing or eliminating subsidized tuition to in-state residents and (ii) offering debt forgiveness to people in certain fields that remain in-state for a certain period of time after college. After all, if what you want is a larger workforce in certain areas in the state of Florida, why subsidize certain majors, only to have those individuals you've just trained for highly-compensated jobs in competitive labor markets go elsewhere for work? And why discriminate against people coming from out of state? Just make the time threshold for debt forgiveness something like 10 or 15 years so graduates will put down roots and stay once their debt is forgiven and you should get even better results for the same dollars (and better yet, defer paying those dollars into the future).

Eric M. Jones

I don't know. But when the Japanese were selecting Kamikaze pilots from the university, their rule was that science and math majors were too valuable to be eligible....only business, the arts, and humanities majors were selected to be Kamikaze pilots.

Charles L.

I doubt this will work. Lower tuition is a financial incentive, which would have little impact. Engineers, doctors, and other important fields make much more money than say, art history majors. Clearly the problem isn't the money involved. That sort of program might work and elite private institution, where tuition could be 40k for a "useful" major and 60k for a "useless" major (it is currently around 50k), but graduates from those institutions in a "useful" major will make even more money than their art historian counterparts. The only time I can see a useful financial incentive would be for math/science teachers, who don't get paid nearly enough for their important work, unions aside.

A much better solution would be to look at why students don't like STEM. The answer is that they require more work and are less socially attractive. STEM is frowned upon in this country, often in favor of business majors or humanities majors, which require less work and are thought of as being the more glamorous paths. Solutions to this would be to crack down on "gut" classes and majors, and make sure students are learning and working for most of their time at college (this might also help with the rampant alcoholism/drug consumption/sexual assault problems colleges are facing). Another strategy, one a bit too statist in my opinion, would be some sort of campaign in and against the popular media and its demonization of intelligence. This country clearly has a problem with smart people, as shown by our right handed attacks on teachers and basic science, and on our left hand by its media conglomerates.



I know economists don't like it but what about a quota system? Instead of having Anthropology majors pay more why not limit enrollment, keep tuition low, and raise the entry-level requirements (GPA)? STEM graduates are getting a better return on their investment already and lowering their tuition gives them an even better deal. If we truly believe in market incentives they should be willing to pay the same or higher tuition with the knowledge that they will get higher returns.

And I take issue with the notion that we all somehow benefit more from STEM graduates. Anthropology yields many positive externalities as well. We must be careful about putting faith in some kind of objective "market" that tells us what careers are more or less valuable. Corporate leaders are all over the map when they describe what kind of workers we will need in the future. Raising and lowering tuition for different fields of study will not be based on any kind of objective market and will in effect be a market distorting process in itself. Keeping tuition equal for all majors is market-distorting but at least we are being honest that we realize there is no real market for this stuff.

Because STEM graduates already can expect higher wages, lowering their tuition will have less than expected results. The real bottleneck is in the academic pre-requisites. What is holding most potential STEM graduates back is not tuition, but GPA and test scores. I am not suggesting lowering standards, however, most STEM majors could do a better job encouraging students instead of using their intro courses to "weed out" potential graduates. If we combine that with higher standards for non-STEM fields we can steer more students into STEM, have stronger students in the Liberal Arts majors, and not set up a divisive tuition structure.



This is exactly the opposite of what is happening. An engineering major at two universities in the Midwest I have attended are now more expensive than, say, a creative writing major. The reason given to us was cost of computers and equipment an engineering degree requires.


They've got it backwards. Tuition for degrees that lead to jobs that are likely to pay higher salaries ought to cost more, if we are adopting a model of higher education in which we regard the purpose of education to be job training. If it leads people to get a good paying job, it is more valuable than a major that leads someone to become unemployed. I don't understand this proposal at all -- we should make more valuable things cheaper to encourage people to take things that are more valuable? What? If they were motivated by money, then they'd be motivated by their likely future salary already.


Some majors are more in demand than others. Universities try to meet this demand by expanding the size programs to accommodate more students. This isn’t always possible: some majors are harder to staff with instructors because of more lucrative opportunities available to would-be instructors. Universities should also charge more for those majors that command higher compensation upon graduation. Thus, it makes sense that some majors will require higher (or lower) tuition. However, the idea that the state of Florida can accurately predict which skills are needed in the future is a little hard to fathom.


rather than subsidizing the pursuit of education, create incentives for staying in the needed/desired field for a specific number of years after receiving the degree or certification. we don't need to subsidize education, we need to incentivize people to stick with their choices....and follow through with positive contributions to society.