Inside Higher Ed: Pricing out the humanities

By Colleen Flaherty, for Inside Higher Ed

November 26, 2012




History professors at the University of Florida think their courses are definitely valuable, but they don't want them to be among the most expensive. And they are organising to protest against a task force's recommendation to charge more for majors without an immediate job payoff - a recommendation that the historians fear could discourage enrolments.

History professors have organised a petition against one of the more controversial recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform: differential tuition that could be punitive to the humanities. They've garnered more than 1,300 names in a week, including those from places far beyond the Sunshine State.

"We, the undersigned faculty, have dedicated our careers to the common good of the State of Florida," the petition reads. "We believe that the institutional goals of our universities are not in conflict with state goals. We also know a great deal about the vital connection between higher education and a responsible and productive citizenry; in fact, this connection is at the very center of our profession."

Quoting the task force's language on differential tuition, petition co-creator Norman Goda said: "The theory is that students in 'non-strategic majors,' by paying higher tuition, will help subsidise students in the 'strategic' majors, thus creating a greater demand for the targetted programmes and more graduates from these programmes, as well."

Established in May by Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who has said he wants to run Florida's education system more like a business, the task force includes legislators, businesspeople and educators appointed by various parties.

It finalised its recommendations earlier this month. The governor is now reviewing the report, which divides reform into three different but interlinked areas: accountability, funding and governance.

Recommendations for accountability include a call for more metrics to determine university success and performance, while those for governance include allowing the state university system's Board of Governors more control over funding (currently the state legislature holds much of that control). Funding recommendations call for non-uniform tuition among the state's 12 universities and a further look into differential tuition among degree programs.

Although several models for differential tuition exist in higher education, the model endorsed by the task force would aim to hold in-state tuition rates for "high-skill, high-wage, high-demand (market determined strategic demand) degree programs" steady for at least three years, making them potentially more attractive to students than other majors. Although the task force report doesn't officially recommend strategic majors, it names several possible categories previously identified by the Florida university system's Board of Governors, including 111 in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); 28 programmes in globalisation; and 21 in the health professions. Core humanities disciplines did not make the list.

Task force chairman Dale Brill, Florida Chamber Foundation president and Mr Scott's appointee to the group, said the recommendations were based on "logic," rather than research into which degree programmes have proven to be the most beneficial to individual students and state economies. Defining "strategic" and "non-strategic" programmes ultimately will be the work of the state legislature, he said.

"The task force tried to identify innovative approaches to spreading limited resources to drive maximum benefit to the system," Mr Brill said. "Up until now, in that system, that money is invested evenly across the board with very little attention paid toward getting maximum return on that investment" for the 104 million taxpayers contributing to it.

Mr Brill said he wondered why humanities professors felt targeted by a plan to improve the university funding system, which would improve the university system overall.

"If you improve the system without worrying about the professors in the system, in the end the system has more resources to invest," he said.

But Lillian Guerra, one of Dr Goda's history colleagues at the University of Florida and a petition co-creator, said the task force plan lays the foundation for second-class degrees. Departments receive funding based on how many students enrol in courses, she said, so decreased humanities enrolment would lead to less funding for the department.

Damage to the department would damage the university overall, she added. "In the short term, I think we run the risk of demolishing our prestige as an institution, when so much of the institution's prestige has been anchored in liberal arts."

Dr Goda said that in the long run, differential tuition could mean a less "richly educated" workforce. Students in strategic majors also could suffer from lack of a well-rounded education - something he said makes them "truly adaptable and employable over the course of their lives".

It's unclear exactly when the recommendations could be considered by the Florida legislature, or which, if any, Mr Scott will endorse.

A spokeswoman said Scott "has made it clear he thinks Florida's colleges and universities need to be affordable for the families of our state". But the governor - in-much discussed remarks last year about anthropology - has seemed skeptical of the value of a number of liberal arts disciplines.

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