I am still an idealist when it comes to college. The four years spent in higher education remain a singular opportunity for young Americans to reach beyond themselves and ask questions that will, hopefully, take a lifetime to answer. But alongside my idealism I can see the reality that this nation faces tough questions about higher education. Who can afford it? How is it paid for? There is one thing, however, of which I am certain. Making the cost of tuition depend on which major you choose is a terrible idea, especially if those higher costs hit students longing for a life in science and technology.
A recent Cornell study showed that 140 four-year public colleges had differential undergraduate tuition rates. That is an increase of more than 19 percent from 2006. In some cases the tuition increases as you make your way towards graduation. But in other schools it depends on your program, with business, nursing and engineering leading the way.
The justification for these differential tuition policies tends to focus on the loss of public funding for public schools, along with the argument that some majors cost more to run or are simply in higher demand.
State funding difficulties since 2008 have resulted in nothing short of a crisis for some institutions. It's this loss of funding that drives the justification for differential tuition. The dangers of this slippery slope, as it effects the already challenged national effort in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), can't be understated.
Excellence in science and technology is the key to our collective economic future. There are many reasons why the last century earned the label "American." One of them has to be our enthusiastic, all-encompassing embrace of science. It played a central role in elevating our nation to global leadership. Our emphasis on science and technology has been a key to success in the past and its abandonment will surely be a prescription for decline in the future.
We already have a serious problem keeping young students in STEM fields simply because they are perceived to be too hard. That truth makes differential tuition plans dangerous. If we can't convince the next generation of students to stay with these essential studies because of their difficulty, then making them more expensive is surely folly.
There are tough questions facing us as a society about the value and cost of higher education. Those questions have to be asked by those within and outside of the campus. Some of these questions relate to the economics of higher education. However, some of these questions fall to the society as a whole when we ask what an education means for our civilization.
Answering these questions will not be easy. But pitting one major against another seems like a losing game.
We need more scientists, engineers and mathematically adept graduates, not less. We also need to remain committed to education in the humanities and the value it provides society.
Whatever solutions we seek in dealing with the ever-growing cost of college, discouraging students in the very fields we are already struggling to support should not be one of them.
You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His most recent book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.