Should Engineers Pay Less for College: NO


Ian Grimm

A recent proposal from a Florida task force on higher education suggested a radical approach to improving the Florida education system: subsidizing “useful” degrees, such as engineering, medicine, or business, to the detriment of degrees that are less “useful”, like philosophy, English literature, or cultural studies.

While the proposal never made it past committee, it spurred on a significant and relevant discussion in higher education: should “societally valuable” and in-demand degrees be economically favored too, with scholarships and subsidies from the state or university? And what are societally valuable degrees, anyway?

I’m writing a two part series on this topic, where I argue for and against this policy, and whether the legislature or any university should apply a program like this. Last week I argued FOR subsidized “useful” degrees in colleges, and this week I’m arguing AGAINST it. Email me at [email protected] to join in on the discussion!

While the Florida degree program is well-intentioned and may have potential positive effects on unemployment and economical positions, it would come at a social cost to many people who are shoehorned into degree programs they don’t want to attend or are unable to handle the rigor of.

As well, subsidies for STEM degrees would be a net negative because humanities programs are necessary to balance out the “progress for progress’ sake” narrative of development with foresight and historical understanding.

Engineering and STEM fields are known to be some of the hardest education programs in college, and for good reason—only a select few are both willing and able to undergo the rigorous demands of an engineering program to attain a degree. Many students who want to be engineers as freshman drop out of their majors, with about a 48% attrition rate over 6 years.

This effect was especially pronounced at the associate degree level, with a 69% STEM attrition rate. Associate’s degree students are often lower-income and need career potential without a load of student debt, so forcing people into STEM fields with subsidies, when those people wouldn’t succeed in STEM fields, straddles them with extra student debt.

Cramming students into a major that doesn’t fit them using economic incentives isn’t going to be any solution to the economy—instead of attracting would-be engineers with the right competence and mindset for a difficult profession, it would draw bottom-of-the-barrel students to take on a major far outstretching their intellectual capacity, and become disillusioned with college as a whole.

This picture doesn’t get any brighter when considering that the money used to support lower STEM degree costs would come from the pockets of liberal arts programs, which creates a dangerous paradigm for low-income, first generation college students: either take the seemingly affordable but insurmountable STEM degree that will likely cause people to drop out with thousands in debt, or splurge on a liberal arts degree that’s personally satisfying and still career-valuable yet straddles them with impossible debt burdens.

Additionally, engineering and technical degrees are often the costliest degree programs any university will offer, and because many colleges offer flat rates on tuition, engineering degrees are already subsidized with the low baseline costs (a professor and a classroom) of a humanities degree. A further subsidy would spike prices for the liberal arts degrees that people could create a career from, while growing the number of STEM dropouts and feeding the already-omnipresent spectre of college debt.

The societal impacts of promoting STEM degrees without their humanities and liberal-arts counterparts also would have far-reaching negative consequences. While, in my humble opinion, the world could do with one or two less lawyers, these kinds of subsidies would do something horrible to the reputation, and, indeed, entire purpose, of a liberal arts degree: making them second-class disciplines, subordinate to “necessary” trades.

Much of the importance of the liberal arts is to take a critical look at how technological progress affects people, and the ways that we can achieve growth while still maintaining balance in society. Facebook was treated with near-universal acclaim when it first entered the market, but its social repercussions through how it creates echo chambers and prevents valuable conversations is a corrosive underside to its technological prowess.

If we devalue the critical importance of the humanities in addressing the sins of progress, we doom ourselves to have all that positive progress stripped away—none of the potential good of technological growth realized, all the potential bad released.

By subsidizing STEM and charging higher rates for humanities disciplines, we as a society say “We don’t need you anymore” to the humanities. The social and cultural backlash from a move like that would be profound, painful, and disastrous.

Engineering and STEM are incredible disciplines. But individuals need to have opportunities to find their own paths, and society needs to understand that progress has costs. This is why we need the humanities. This is why we can’t have subsidies for STEM education. Keeping the humanities relevant is selecting the best parts of progress, making society better with them.