Tuition Determined by Major?

What’s your opinion?

Jordan Weissmann:

Philosophy lovers, prepare to be outraged.

Down in Florida, a task force commissioned by Governor Rick Scott is putting the finishing touches on aproposal that would allow the state’s public universities to start charging undergraduates different tuition rates depending on their major. Students would get discounts for studying topics thought to be in high demand among Florida employers. Those would likely include science, technology, engineering, and math (aka, the STEM fields), among others.

But Art History? Gender Studies? Classics? Sorry, but the fates are cruel. Unless a university could show that local companies were clamoring to hire humanities students, those undergrads would have to pay more for their diploma.

Charging tuition by major is one of several recommendations the task force will submit to lawmakers as part of a broad reform package for Florida’s university system. The hope appears to be that by keeping certain degrees cheaper than others, the state can lure students into fields where it needs more talent. It’s an interesting idea in the abstract, but if it ever makes it into law, the results could be messy….

Ensuring that taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck is an admirable goal. So is encouraging students to think ahead about their careers. The question is whether staggering tuition among majors will actually accomplish either.

To believe that it will, you have to accept two notions: First, you need to take it on faith that the government is capable of divining which majors are going to be the most marketable year after year. Second, you need to believe that there are a large number of talented undergrads who could hack it in these subjects, but are choosing easier majors instead.

I’m not sure either of those assumptions are sound.


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  • Chad

    Neither assumption is sound, IMO. Let’s see, those going into higher paying technical careers and therefore most capable of paying off college loans will be charged less for college, while those going into the lower paying Humanities (least capable of paying off loans) will be charged more?? Will the professors in these various disciplines be paid more or less according to the tuition scale? If a university simply chooses to not offer certain degree plans then so be it, but to use tuition scales to funnel students into certain disciplines seems wrong to me.
    My experience here in Texas, where public university tuition has increased in staggering percentages over the last 10-15 years, is that colleges need to start lowering cost for everyone. After all, these are “public” institutions that are supposed to be accessible and affordable to the masses. And by affordable I don’t mean easy access to loans, which is a whole other subject.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Typical. This idea seems paradigmatic for how Americans in general view education – pragmatically. What does this do for our bottom line? How does this equal a well-paying job?

    Nothing at all to do with actually educating people. Nothing at all about teaching people to think deeply and critically. In that regard, I’d take a philosophy major over a business major any day of the week.

  • Travis Greene

    Yeah, super-dumb. As if there’s any guarantee the people who get degrees in these lucrative fields will even stay in Florida past graduation.

  • This *might* make sense if you could prove that certain majors were leading to increased dependence on social services; if art history majors were clogging the welfare & Medicaid rolls, or philosophers were demonstrably more likely to be on food assistance. They are not. We have problems in higher education and specifically in the humanities, and there’s a difference between pointlessness and employability, but I think this tuition-skew idea is likely to have some wicked unintended consequences, such as higher non-completion rates . . . which *does* prove to increase reliance on various government services.

    The higher ed spending-vs.-outcomes problem is biggest in the online & “vocational” for-profit colleges where completion rates are terrible, and even with completion employment is marginal at best — cosmetology, massage therapy, even many of the truck driving & criminal justice programs, let alone poorly grounded “faux technical” degrees (Medical Assisting, Massage Therapy, Tech Support, et alia).

  • Nicholas

    I got excited when I read the title! then my hopes were dashed quite expertly. I think the opposite should be true!

    I am an undergrad. studying Theology and Classics! The classics department has 2 professors and theology department is in an old building surrounded with a bunch of big old books while the engineering school (this one is particularly prestigious) has two entire buildings with all of the millions of dollars of up-to-date equipment. I am paying the same as these engineering majors…

    Besides that, I second Joshua’s comment.

  • RJS


    Professors are paid according to the market and thus professors in some disciplines are paid more than other. The differences can be staggering. Assistant professors in some disciplines can make more than world renowned senior scholars in others.

    The “public” in public institutions means that they are publicly supported by tax dollars and thus accessible to all. Unfortunately the public (i.e. monetary) support for higher education is being cut drastically. Higher education is no longer viewed as a public good. I won’t discuss whether this is good or bad, and in fact there are pros and cons, but when tax support drops, tuition must rise.

  • metanoia

    Education is a life long endeavor. Providing incentives for majors that are in demand makes sense to me. You can always study philosophy or art history later, after you have found gainful employment. Besides, the last studies I consulted revealed that about 70% of college graduates are working in a career field that has no connection to their college education. Sometimes a job is what you do to pay the bills and while allowing you to pursue your hobbies and interests.

  • How many students actually pick a major and stick with it? I’ve seen students change majors multiple times in their 4-6 years of undergrad. Will their tuition change each semester?

  • AHH

    If the state’s goal is to produce more talented college graduates in STEM fields, this is way too late in the pipeline to be trying to divert students. Very few classics majors are going to convert to successful chemistry majors at the college level, because science and engineering require certain ways of thinking that even very smart people have a hard time picking up if they are not acquired early.

    A better way of achieving that goal would be to invest more in the teaching of these topics at the K-12 level. But that would probably require taxpayer money, so it would be unlikely to be proposed by Gov. Scott. Not to mention that some in Scott’s party have been active in trying to undermine public school science standards in Florida (particularly for biology).

  • MikeK

    Forgive me: The State of Florida should give its attention and energy- and maybe a scholarship or two?- to figure out its voting problems.

  • Trav

    Here in Australia it’s based on cost to the university. And in effect it works out the opposite to the above: Courses like medicine and engineering end up costing more, not less.

    There are 3 bands. The cheapest band covers humanities, the middle band covers business etc and the expensive band is things like science and medicine.

    However there are discounts for nursing and teaching I believe. Or maybe not discounts but they are in Band 1 despite not necessarily fitting there, being professions that the state has an interest in keeping affordable.

    (At least that’s my rough recollection. I thought it worth mentioning for the contrast with the system being proposed in Scot’s post).

  • Phil Miller

    I think state could incentivize certain majors over others, but doing that on the tuition side of things seems backwards to me. Like others have said, I don’t think there will be anything to ensure that a student would actually stay in the state after graduation. Why not offer incentives on the other side? Tell students that if they graduate in these fields and get jobs in the state, the state will help them with the repayment of loans. I know there are programs like that for teachers and nurses in certain areas of the countries. At least that gives people incentive to stay in the state.

  • Funny, my first guess at what majors would be the most expensive is the sciences, because the lab equipment and buildings are very expensive. Philosophy just needs a few books each year.

    On the other hand, another way to guess which majors would be expensive is the professor/student ratio. I went to a private liberal arts college and graduated with a physics major. Several of my upper-level classes had only 4 or 5 students. I knew that I was getting a lot for my money when a tenured professor would set up and run an entire lab course for me and a tiny handful of others. I suppose that this might be the case with majors like philosophy – few majors and a lot of faculty time.

    I agree with earlier comments, though, that what a person majors in is not always what they end up in. I majored in physics, then went to grad school in biophysics, and then became a professor of biology. But after a few years of teaching informally at my church about early Christian history, I went into doing that full time. Now I am a Christian writer. It was probably good that I didn’t get any special tax incentives since I didn’t end up in a “hire-able” field.

  • I’m skeptical, though not for the reasons described above. I was happily working as an electrical engineer prior to being called into ministry, at which point I got an M.Div. (much easier than an engineering degree, by the way!) and became a pastor. Obviously I didn’t go into pastoral ministry because it paid more. But, in general, isn’t it the case that the job market would provide adequate incentives for people to choose to go into these more in-demand fields? If the market isn’t doing it on the back-end (with higher starting salaries and more employment opportunities), why do we imagine that it would do it on the front end?

    Or maybe the “invisible hand” is working just fine, and it’s a political myth that the state needs more of these supposedly more highly valued jobs. If they’re more highly valued, then how else do we value them than by paying more for them? My point is, I doubt this is a real problem.

    But I imagine it’s hard to be a philosophy major. None of the major philosophy firms are hiring these days! 😉

  • jared dilley

    I love this idea. Education is about the public good and we all subsidize it. I do not want to pay for another highly educated barista at starbucks.

  • Steve Teague

    Wow – I am sure those who major in religious studies and philosophy – political science and sociology will get great breaks. Maybe the billionare members of the PACs can guide universities into paths of Godly wisdom for the good of all. And I see Albert Mohler book posted on this site? Come on? Really?

  • Diane

    DC Cramer,

    Good point about students changing majors. My daughter is on her third, having moved from education to forensics to computer information systems. My son with every fiber of his being wants to major in philosophy–I would say it’s a calling–but the social messages have been so condemning that is he is being ripped internally to shreds over this. He’s alway riddled with guilt over his desire. Is not the low pay for such majors enough, without incurring even more debt? Isn’t there social good in having people study philosophy? I believe there is. We need thinkers. Directly vocational degrees should be paid for by the companies that need them, I think, and not shouldered by the tax payer.

  • Phil Miller

    Isn’t there social good in having people study philosophy? I believe there is. We need thinkers.

    Well, we do need thinkers, but I think that anyone who graduates from a decent academic program from a college should be skilled in critical thinking. Personally, I think we need to get back to the idea that a college education isn’t simply vocation training, but rather training people how to think about all aspects of life. Many people end up working in fields that are different than their degrees anyway.

    That being said, my advice would be for someone not to get some degrees unless they literally can’t do something else. I wouldn’t ridicule philosophy majors (well, not too much, I was an engineering major, and it was a prerequisite for me to graduate that I ridicule all liberal arts majors when I get the chance 🙂 ), but I do think that some students are living in a fantasy world when they think that simply graduating from college entitles them to having employment and a certain standard of living that comes with that. We simply don’t live in that type of world any longer.

  • Diane


    My would-be philosophy major son is good at math–ironic–and breezes through science courses, so, yes, the pressure is on to pursue the practical. The inner voice struggles with society’s voice. It strikes me as a deeply spiritual battle. What price a soul? Yet one must live and all the imperatives of being a male age-earner in a still sexist society weigh upon him. We need to trust God to lead. Perhaps, getting back to the question at hand, I fall back on Dorothy Day’s dictum that we need to build a society where it is easier for people to be good, and for that reason, I would not want to increase the burden on callings. On the other hand, the already existing disincentives to such paths as philosophy perhaps present a good test to the call.

  • Phil Miller

    I hear what you’re saying, but personally, I actually think that in America right now pursuing degrees in science, engineering, and medicine are actually sort of counter-cultural at the moment.

    I don’t think it’s simply about being a male earner. I think it’s about investing in learning skills that benefit society as a whole. I meet many students who seem to think their highest calling in life should be doing something that makes then happy and fulfilled. While no one can deny that’s important. Passionate workers always make the best workers, I think. But I also think we need to start looking at these degrees not as simply ways to bring home a big paycheck, but as ways to serve people.

    In any case, I hope your son ends up finding something he loves and can pour himself into, whatever that may be.

  • Diane


    All good and thoughtful comments. It’s easier for my daughter, who simply has always wanted to do something practical. I keep thinking about Jesus, who could have made a decent living as a carpenter instead of ending up dead at 30 (or so) because of his “lunatic” choices. That’s not to say that my son shouldn’t be a math major. As you say, that may be the counter-cultural choice.

  • John Adams said this

    The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

    As the president said, we all need to sacrifice a little.

  • I think of it like this… Some people love modern homes. Clean lines, lots of glass, wood, concrete, etc. with little distraction and very sterile surfaces. BUT, no one wants to actually try and live in one.

    Humanities are messy, bumpy, and economically unsound; the problem is that most of the things that make a place/world/society nice to live in are economically unsound.

    The overall problem though is that the everything to everyone university model is unsustainable. I say make way for smaller, more specialized schools.

  • Percival

    Like Nicholas #5 I expected that the costs would reflect the university’s cost of providing the education. Hi-cost facilities and highly-paid instructors of some disciplines should cost more. Low-cost programs should charge less. Could each department set tuition costs and the university tack on an admin fee?

    Australia’s approach (according to Trav #11) seems to make sense, but I wonder what “the law of unintended consequences” would produce. More humanities majors? Less-qualified instructors in highly technical fields? Or maybe radical innovations like having low-paid TA’s doing the bulk of teaching so professors can get on with the jobs of research and publishing. 😉

  • Craig

    Yes, since the better employment prospects of mathematicians and physicists aren’t attractive enough, let’s also subsidize the education of these future Goldman Sachs employees. Let humanities departments attach themselves to private benefactors like Art Pope, through whom the remaining tenure-track professors will discover the great and neglected literature of Ayn Rand. Highly motivated students can always round out their liberal education by logging into Glenn Beck University.

  • Phil Miller

    Hi-cost facilities and highly-paid instructors of some disciplines should cost more. Low-cost programs should charge less.

    Many of these costs aren’t carried by the universities directly, though. Depending on the discipline, the cost of labs and equipment is often covered by various government and industry grants, alumni donations, etc.

    Also, one thing that I haven’t seen anyone mention is that when it comes to graduate level education, if you go into a STEM field, there’s a good chance you’re tuition will be covered by the department. It depends on the field, but both my wife’s Master’s and PhD degrees were covered, plus she got a stipend.

  • Kristin

    If Florida employers want higher numbers of graduates in certain fields, loan payment assistance should be offered to recent graduates who stay in-state after graduation and work in specific fields. It won’t matter if they attract more students to their universities if they all leave for Silicon Valley or something after graduation.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Bad idea in general, as it might increase mediocrity in the sciences – “wasn’t interested, but it’s all I could afford”…

    AHH @ 9 – said it well – the change needs to happen much earlier. But if conservatives really want to put their money where their mouths are, they should provide tax-breaks / improve current tax breaks for companies that provide scholarships & bursaries to deserving students. That is the only way I could go to University (in SA) without massive debt – I got a scholarship, based on hard work in High School, from a major multinational. Plus there was an agreement that I work back 6 months for every year – thus providing employment.

    Overqualified barristas? Sure -my wife manages some of them. Whereas education is great, its primary goal is still to feed and house you and your family. Lofty intellectualism that do not bring in the dough is a luxury. Those that pursue academic careers still have to produce research and/or teach to put bread on the table. I would have liked to do that, but life intervened.

  • kevinchez

    i joke that i am pushing my daughter to the trades so i don’t have to pay for college. she is only three so by the time she is 18 how much will it cost? she will be better off a hair dresser or a welder!

    what is unfortunate is that the student loans are held by the govt so people are basically servants of washington. i hope this is never held over their heads. get out of debt fast!!!

    its the same with mortgages. freddie mac bought mine so it is basically the gov’t propping up wells fargo. gotta pay that off asap