Should Science Majors Cost Less?

The Atlantic has just published an interesting article: should public universities charge less for majors the state considers to be economically important?  The idea is a proposal from a Florida higher education task force.  The article brings up some immediate problems that come to mind, namely that it can be hard to predict specific majors that will be important over long periods of time and that this system and that students aren’t equally good at all majors.

I can also think of some other problems.  First, science and engineering majors actually require big capital investments from colleges.  They require lots of equipment and materials for labs.  Lowering the “cost” of these majors to students puts more of the cost needed for education on the university.  I could also see this system becoming gamed by smaller schools.  The actual proposal doesn’t just refer to STEM majors, it’s about any major the state considers important to its industries.  According to the Atlantic article, the Florida government has already designated the STEM disciplines, some education specialties, health fields, emergency and security services, and “globalization” as “strategic areas of emphasis”.  It’s not stated, but I would assume the state would help schools make up the difference between normal tuition and the price for discounted majors.  But what’s to stop a school from choosing to focus on say education and foreign affairs to get extra money from the state, and have a bare-bones science program so the extra money can go to other expenses?  Or who’s to say a school won’t try to encourage as many kids as possible from joining full or extra price majors to get more money, especially if an influx of STEM students on discounted tuition were to severely affect finances for labs?

On a less practical note, I would also worry this might homogenize the schools.  There’s a lot to learn from meeting people of different majors in college, or just meeting people who are really passionate about their field.  If a lot of friends are just majoring in mechanical engineering because “it’s cheap”, I wonder how effective they would be.  And what ideas they might never have if they never run into a philosophy or music major.

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