Doctor Cleveland's picture

    The Humanities as Sugar Daddy

    So, the Governor of Florida set up a Task Force on higher education, and they decided that humanities majors should pay more than science majors for a college education. The thinking is that Florida wants more technology grads, and fewer humanities grads, and can get them by making humanities degrees more expensive so that students opt for science, math, and technology instead. They call this approach "market based," but its ignorance of basic economic realities is startling.

    One of the hard truths of higher education is that some classes run at a profit and some run at a loss, and that the less-expensive, more-profitable classes are used to underwrite courses that are just as educationally necessary but cost more to run. The larger classes help pay for the smaller ones, the introductory classes help pay for the advanced ones, and the classes in "soft" subjects like English, history, or anthropology help pay for classes in "hard" disciplines like science and engineering.

    This seems counter-intuitive to some non-academics who, having internalized the idea that science is where the money is, presume that offering science classes is also more profitable than offering classes on Latin poetry or sociological methods. But it is partly because STEM graduates make more money on average than humanities graduates that teaching STEM courses is more expensive: engineering professors make higher salaries than classics professors. Laboratory science (including computer science, certainly) also requires expensive labs and equipment, while most humanities courses require only a textbook (whose price is borne by the student, not the college). It's true that STEM fields bring in more external grant money, but that grant money largely gets eaten up by the lab facilities you have to build in order to apply for the grants.

    The question "how can the humanities pay for themselves?" ignores the fact that the humanities not only pay for themselves but underwrite the sciences too. But ignoring that fact does not make it go away. And if Florida did manage to move a large number of its students out of profit-turning humanities classes into break-even-or-less science classes, it's likely that many public university budgets in Florida will go up in flames pose significant challenges.

    Of course, that presumes that they can move students into their math and science classes at all. The "market-based" part of the solution ignores the fact that the Florida schools are actually part of a market. They compete for students with a large number of other schools. Being in a market means that you don't get to set prices unilaterally.

    The English majors will simply go somewhere else. This is how markets work. Making a humanities degree pricier won't discourage people from pursuing that degree. It will only encourage them to buy it from your competitors instead of you. If it's too expensive to major in history at the University of Florida, students who want to major in history will either go to a private university or leave the state.

    What Florida just decided to do is the equivalent to saying, "I'm tired of customers buying hamburgers instead of lobster. I'm going to make hamburgers twice as expensive as lobster." If you did that, you wouldn't sell more lobster. You'd just lose customers. They would go across the street to a restaurant where lobster was the same price, and burgers much cheaper. On the other hand, the few customers you did have would order nothing but the lobster, which you have to buy at expensive wholesale prices, instead of the ground beef that wholesales for so much less. And your restaurant will go broke pretty quickly, especially if you were already using the profits on all those hamburgers to subsidize the lobster side of the business.

    But the Florida idea is ultimately just a newer version of something that's been happening in American universities for decades, as administrators demand a higher and higher profit margin from humanities classes in order to fund other priorities. For at least twenty-five years colleges have been increasing those profits by cutting humanities budgets, trying to spend less and less on those classes while keeping the revenue those courses bring in steady and growing. They shrink the number of full-time faculty in those fields, shift more and more teaching to ill-paid part-timers, and when push comes to shove cut the few subjects in the humanities, such as foreign-language instruction, that require higher overhead. Cutting costs AND upping prices is just an intensification of the normal strategy, busting the piggy bank open at two different ends.

    Universities don't cut humanities budgets because the humanities are unprofitable. They cut humanities budgets because humanities are profitable, and schools are trying to squeeze more and more profit out of them. It's one of the few places to make money.  And schools are always hungry for more.


    My objection to this is one of priorities.  The economy needs to accommodate people's interests, not the other way around.  Education is a universal good, no matter what people choose to study.

    As for a shortage of STEM professionals... the answer isn't to push people into those fields of study at the expense of others.  The answer is to pay STEM professionals more and it'll take care of itself.  Yes, that means that certain engineering firms are going to have to compete with Wall Street pay packages, but them's the breaks.

    Well, Michael, my heart agrees with you there (although I try to argue about these issues from my head and not my heart). And more importantly, the American system of higher education is based around the

    Our higher education system emphasizes individual liberty in a free market: the student's pursuit of happiness. It does not guarantee that students get everything they want, but allows them to pursue what they want. The system maximizes choice: hundreds (nay, thousands) of independent individual schools with no centralization, and students free to apply to any school that will have them and major in any subject that they can pass.

    Controlling how many graduates you produce in specific fields would require a very different organization: a centralized national university system, with no private colleges, which would predetermine a number of seats for students in every academic program and make students compete for those seats. This is how many European countries do it. They limit the number of art history graduates by only permitting a few students to get into art history programs. But that approach is deeply opposed to everything American conservatism claims to prize. It's centralized government authority deliberately limiting individual choices.

    If Florida does want to produce more science graduates and fewer humanists, then Florida should focus on improving the centralized, government-run eduactional system it does control: the K-12 system. Students don't avoid college math classes because they're interested in lower-paying careers; there are plenty of kids who want to be doctors. They shy away from STEM coursework because they don't feel properly prepared for it. And in too many cases, they're right. The most efficient way to get more college graduates in math and science is for high school graduates to be stronger in math and science.

    It's funny, though, that people somehow think a good education in the humanities is somehow easier to get than a good STEM education.  It depends so much on talents and interests.  I probably couldn't hack an English ph.d program the way you did, or the way my best friend did.  I've seen the work that goes into it.  I couldn't hack a theatre ph.d program either.  They're hard.  And, they've become increasingly specialized as scholars have drilled down and, yes, brought some scientific rigor to the pursuit of human knowledge.  There's nothing easy about wat you've accomplished or what you do.

    Meanwhile, you have people like me who just like to write, like to read and like to discuss things in what I guess people now call a middlebrow way.  There's nothing easy about that either, if you want to do it well.  I know I'd be better served by a more literate society full of people who want to have casual conversations about contemporary literature.

    So, while I agree with you that giving people better math and science education might give people more options (and that's great!) they also need better education in literature, philosophy, art and culture because awareness of those subjects is clearly lacking and I think that's culturally dangerous.

    It doesn't make widgets, I know, but there's more to life.  You're right to look at this structurally.  But I think it's also an aesthetic problem.

    Oh boy, do I not disagree. I certainly value the humanities, and I am certainly well aware of how rigorous the humanities are when done properly. (My students and I spend a chunk of every work week reminding each other, in our different ways, that this is not always easy.) I'd be happy to provided a full-throated defense of the value of the humanities.

    But that defense would be too easy for me to write, and too easy for readers to discount. I'm supposed to value the humanities. But I also teach all of my students that they have to persuade readers who do not already agree with their conclusions, and who do not necessarily share their values. So I have to practice that, too.

    But I also teach all of my students that they have to persuade readers who do not already agree with their conclusions, and who do not necessarily share their values.

    Hoo boy, you can teach that?  Now you tell me. sad

    Hey Doc. I always love your articles on the higher education business.

    I'm not sure whether I agree with you on this one, though. Universities may be like private businesses in many ways, but there are differences. For instance, a restaurant manager would not normally decide that she wanted her customers to eat more lobster unless the restaurant could make more money by doing so. A university, however, has many motives unrelated to its bottom line, especially a public university subsidized by the state. Encouraging students to learn particular skills may be one of those.

    In addition, Florida's universities aren't exactly competing in a free market. They might lose some "customers" by raising tuition, but the majority of the students are subsidized Floridians who get a better deal in-state even with tuition increases.

    I suspect that your real concern--at least my real concern--is the simple fact of large tuition increases, which has been a real problem at universities all over the country. If instead of penalizing non-STEM students, Florida has decided to offer more grants or tuition breaks to STEM students, would you have had any objection? 

    Seems like there are already all sorts of private interests that sponsor students to encourage any number of topics.  But isn't the public interest just that people educate themselves, in whatever subjects they choose?  If Intel thinks there aren't enough software engineers, it can certainly (and has) endowed any number of scholarships to promote interest in the field.  Heck, if anyone is disadvantaged it's somebody who wants to study a less "practical" subject as encouragement in the fine arts, literature or philosophy is now supported mostly by non-profits, the only exceptions being pursuits that serve entertainment companies.

    I'm not necessarily arguing that the public should support somebody's interest in poetry or Brecht, just that the public isn't necessarily better off supporting an engineer who winds up designing weapons at Lockheed Martin than it would be supporting a Brecht scholar.  So... maybe the public should just stay out of it and encourage people to go to school.  Just let the decisions of those students guide the future.  If we get too few STEM people, then companies who want to hire them will have to pay up.  If they do, more people will pursue careers in those fields.

    First off, students don't have free choice to study whatever they want. They choose from a limited set of majors that the university has chosen to offer. If they want to create their own "interdisciplinary" course of study, the university must approve it.

    Second, not all majors are equally accessible. There are differences in course requirements. Some classes at large universities are hard to get into it. Some departments have better professors. Some have better facilities. Sometimes, when the courses are offered by different programs within a university, there are even price differences. Cornell University, for example, is made up of nine colleges, some of which are state-sponsored and much less expensive. These are factors that affect students decisions.

    So the question isn't really whether all fields of study are created equal but whether the state has any business putting its finger on the scale. Insofar as the states are major stakeholders in public universities, I say yes--within limits. There are rightfully many protections against state meddling with academic freedom, but offering grants and scholarships is certainly one of the state's prerogatives. So are tuition requirements--such as lower rates for in-state student.

    If you think about it, every discipline-specific grant or award, from elementary school to graduate research, impacts the academic choices students make. And do I think that we want the state to be involved in offering such awards. I would not want to leave the field to corporations like Intel (which lack the resources to have a huge impact in any case).

    That doesn't mean that Florida's particular execution of its influence is good, just that the whole idea of the government influence in academic choices is reasonable and good.

    As an aside, one other problem with Florida's plan has occurred to me. A friend of mine in college desperately to study English--she was a poet--but her father wouldn't let her. Not practical enough. She ended up studying geology and became a geologist. While I think she was ultimately happy with the choice, I was nonetheless appalled that her father would exercise his authority by refusing to pay her tuition if she didn't obey his will. So one potential problem with Florida's plan--other than the simple fact of higher tuitions--is that the influence becomes formidable, not just a factor that weighs into a student's decision but a barrier that prevents passionate students from doing what they love to do.

    I just got to pipe up and say this statement of yours really struck me

    I was nonetheless appalled that her father would exercise his authority by refusing to pay her tuition if she didn't obey his will.

    like this: "wow, he's from a world I don't know." Where I came from, people weren't raised to expect parents to pay for anything for children once they reached 18. So I'm not appalled here; it's not at all an emotion that comes to mind. If my dad had offered to pay for a science degree free and clear, I might have taken him up on the offer, gone and got it, and then I might go back and get an art history degree on my own coin afterwards.

    Just offering a different perspectitve. And I do know college educations have gotten so expensive these days that in most cases parents are basically required to help. But that's part of why I'm bringing up how it used to be in the old days. I..E., maybe someone should start looking into making it a little more like that again? devil

    (Example from back in the olden days: Dad: I'll borrow for the extra cost of MIT if you want to get an engineering degree. Kid: gee thanks, Dad, it's nice for you to offer but I have decided I'll go and study French Lit on my own at the state university..)

    I have a (too small, am working on it) 529 Plan for Michael Alexander (the blogger formerly known as Destor Jr.) and fully expect to pay for his undergraduate degree, one way or another.  My parents did the same for me, though I got a scholarship that let them off the hook.  Maybe Michael Alexander will rescue me in a similar way!

    Got me thinking, partly because it's you responding and I know you have some libertarian slants about personal values--

    I see some cognitive dissonance with both some liberals and libertarians as to the legacy of big government in the 20th century. One of the main things it did for our society is give freedom from extended family! Freedom from the grip of your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, great grandparents. Conservatives know this, that's why they don't like it.

    The GI Bill allowed men to break away from following in dad's footsteps, didn't have to stay on the farm.. Social Security meant you no longer had to have the mother-in-law living with you., and wife could keep house as she liked without a boss around. The New Deal combined with GI benefits created the nuclear family of the 50's and we never went back, and the kids that resulted from that, the boomers, were even more independent of their parents than ever, felt empowered that they could do whatever they wanted, resulting in a "generation gap." Taxpayers helping pay for college instead of their parents helped do that.

    The more government help, the more independent of family you can be.. My dad, for example, couldn't have used the GI Bill like he did had his widowed mother not found a guy to marry with a Social Security check to add to her survivor's benefits, he would have had to support her.

    I can't imagine a college life like a lot of  kids these days have, they seem to be tethered to their parents by cell phone and guilt about what it's costing them

    But then I'm a loner and treasure my independence. (Admit that a main reason for that is that I grew up in a cramped apartment with many siblings, one bathroom, no privacy and no where to get any, but other reasons as well.) The notion of an extended family living together and working as a single entity, as well as any kind of communes in general, gives me the creeps. Reminds me of how David Seaton used to ramble about how he wasn't worried about the Spanish people because they have strong family ties and within family they will always take care of each other, but that Americans don't have that. To me, that kind of "taking care of each other" usually includes making a big stink about who you date, what you wear, who you marry and what you study at school, and having to have your elders tell you what to do, it's part of the deal.  I think one of the great things about this country is that someone like a 18-year Hasidic or Amish girl, or home-schooled Christianist boy, or just a kid stuck in the boonies, can leave it all behind. The big government programs that caused the "loss of family ties" are the ones I'm all for. Maybe it's no coincidence that the ones that end of sort of playing in loco parentis are the ones I'm often against.


    Spanish society has grown up - you can have strong family ties without being meddlesome, no? This is Pedro Almodovar time now, not Lorca.

    Sorry, just saw this, Double A.  The New York Italians in my family, from my grandparent's generation, lived like you're describing.  And then you see, through my parents and to my sister and I, a kind of struggling for independence.  I'm like you on that front.  I don't like being judged and told what to do.  I like to make my own mistakes.

    And, like you, I believe that government can help.  Like the 529 Plan I'm setting up for my son... what's great about it is that it's a trust.  It's his money.  If he doesn't spend it on qualified education expenses, he'll have to pay taxes on it.  But whether he wants to be an engineer or to study music, it's his money.  I'm using a government program to (hopefully) give him the power, the same way my scholarship from the University of New Mexico, another government institution, gave me the power to study what I wanted to study.

    The GI Bill totally liberated people from the influences of family and meddling neighbors.  This is a good thing.  I also believe that Obama's health care exchanges will free people from their large employers.

    The problem I have with libertarians is that they've bought into the confused notion that only the government affects their freedoms.  When I read some one like Charles Douthat I see a guy arguing that government shouldn't be telling people what to do so that parents and preachers can.  No thanks.

    In 1990, paying your own way through a private college was inconceivable without massive financial aid, and you could only get financial aid if your parents couldn't afford the tuition--not if they simply chose not to. Most of us relied on a combination of financial aid, work-study, and parental support. I'm sure that it was different at state schools, but even those were becoming pretty expensive by then.

    I don't think I had any friends from college or (public) high school whose parents did not contribute substantially their tuition. Some of those parents exercised discretion over what college their kids attended--refusing to pay for private or out-of-state tuition, for example--but other than the example I mentioned, I don't know anyone whose parents told them what they could or could not major in.

    But if different majors had come with different price tags, I bet more parents would have exercised their discretion, mostly likely be refusing to pay for the extra cost of humanities courses.


    Thank you for bringing this up.  This has been a topic that is being discussed in this household.  I will have three grand children in Florida State Colleges starting in January.  They worked hard in high school to get there and they come from disadvantaged backgrounds.  So every tuition hike, presents a new challenge for them to overcome. 

    After Scott was elected he publicly complained about his daughter having a useless degree in anthropology that did not get her a job.  Also expressed his disappointment that she refused to go into something like science or math.  He made this one of his talking points for awhile while he was slashing deeply into education funds. And giving tax breaks to his rich friends. He and his legislature put several amendments on the ballot to reduce property taxes that normally helps local schools and community colleges.  Some of them were defeated in November's election.

    He sees the buzzards circling over head holding a sign "2014."  He thinks degrading the humanities and putting up road blocks at the same time holding the cost on STEM degrees plays well as a justification to raise costs on higher education and decrease enrollment at the same time. "We will only do the rate increase on some of the more useless degrees."  As you said, this is one way to increase profit on low expense classes.  This will help with the budget short fall that he and Tallahassee has created with their tax cuts. It has nothing to do with increasing math and science students only shifting costs to the students from the state.   

    He will not get a second term.  Organize for America is staying in Florida through the 2014 election to manage the ground game turnout. OFA announced that 2 weeks ago.  I guess I better polish up my boots.


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