A higher education panel appointed by Gov. Rick Scott wants to base tuition rates on degrees, offering lower tuition for degrees in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — where jobs are more likely to be found.
Students pursuing liberal arts degrees such as English, psychology, history, political science, anthropology and the performing arts would pay higher tuition rates.
The goal may be laudable, but the strategy is flawed. Indeed, this top-down, government-knows-best approach is curious from a conservative administration.
Do we want the state punishing students for pursuing their areas of interest or dictating what studies are best for them?
Such a ham-fisted approach is likely to have adverse effects, especially if it saturates the market with STEM graduates with little zeal for their discipline.
Beyond that, there is no compelling data to show directing students to select degrees generates more jobs
A study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce did report last year that unemployment was higher among recent graduate students in non-technical fields. But some studies have reported an oversupply of STEM graduates in Florida.
And a study by the independent Social Science Research Council found that students with the skills emphasized by the liberal arts — the ability to analyze, reason and write — were more likely to be better off financially.
It found that students who had mastered those skills by their senior year in college were three times less likely to be unemployed than those who hadn't; were half as likely to be living with their parents and far less likely to have amassed credit card debt.
The lead author of that study, New York University professor Richard Arum, told USA Today, "Students would do well to appreciate the extent to which their development of general skills, not just majors and institution attended, is related to successful adult transitions."
The proposal advanced by the task force makes no such distinctions.
There are other ways to promote STEM skills, beyond an inequitable tuition structure.
In particular, Florida should ensure that K12 students are given a strong foundation in all subjects, which should inspire those with an aptitude for the sciences to pursue them as a career.
But Scott and his education team should be leery of using the using higher education for social engineering.
And they might note what Oxford Philosophy Professor John Alexander Smith told his students in 1914 and which liberal arts educators often cite with delight:
"Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."
A citizenry educated to determine when people are talking rot may represent a threat to Florida's politicians, but not to its economy.