I started college years ago as a math major — the path to one of those hotshot STEM degrees. Thank goodness I switched, even if STEM is the slogan of the moment in higher education.
From Gov. Rick Scott to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, STEM — science, technology, engineering and math degrees — is seen as the pathway to making Florida a high-tech haven with university students graduating into jobs that pay well, or at least into jobs. And some leaders vilify the liberal arts now that anecdotes abound of students graduating with debt and esoteric degrees but few marketable skills.
But this narrative, while containing some truth, sets up a series of false choices:
• STEM versus liberal arts, as if there were no middle ground.
• College as a meal ticket to a good job versus a university as a training ground for the next generation of leaders and citizens.
• Raising Florida tuition that is mischaracterized by the governor as too high versus investing more tax money in higher education (and stopping the spending cuts).
In each case, the reality — as well as the solution — lies between the extremes. Some of the truths lawmakers must address:
• STEM degrees are an answer but not the answer. And if they are not defined carefully, the category will expand beyond recognition. It could include weak technical degrees as well as theoretical studies. The latter certainly are worthy — for example, they might help us find the elusive "God particle" — but aren't any likelier to lead to a job in Florida than some of the derided liberal arts degrees.
• Quality education isn't cheap. Tuition will have to rise —- as will state spending — if Florida's universities are to compete on the national, let alone international, level. Need-based financial aid also will have to increase. Compared to average tuition and fees of $8,200 nationally, the University of Florida's tuition — $5,800 — is still rock bottom, points out UF president Bernard Machen, who notes that two-thirds of UF students graduated last year without debt.
The state also needs to invest more. Even as students have paid higher tuition in recent years, state colleges and universities have lost ground because lawmakers, unwilling to look for new revenue in the midst of the recession, have cut state spending on higher education more than they increased tuition. This year looks only slightly more promising as the governor has at least proposed no more cuts in state funding in 2012-13. Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who pushed for the creation of the current Board of Governors, said simply: "We need to reverse a 30-year decline in state support for higher education."
But funding questions aren't gaining much traction in Tallahassee these days, with Republican leaders far more interested in discussing policy than money.
Which brings us back to STEM. At the end of my freshman year in college, I began to realize that pure mathematics wasn't a readily marketable skill. That was reinforced by a chat with the instructor who had taught me calculus with computer applications, a doctoral student very worried about his own employment prospects in math after devoting years to the study. At least in my case, by shifting away from just STEM, I was more likely to get a job.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in line to become the next Senate president after the November elections, believes students need more such truth-telling about the jobs and salaries that await graduates in their fields.
"It is a myth," Gaetz says, "that a college degree is a guarantee of a job." The remedy, he believes, is that "we need to make sure that higher education is lashed to the realities of the economy."
But college also should prepare students not just for that first job, but give them the skills to grow into the jobs they will have in 10 years. That's why a liberal arts component, which teaches critical thinking, is essential to any college education. Florida's former university Chancellor Charles Reed, who now holds that job for the California State University system, captured it well: "Silicon Valley can find all the math and engineering people they need. They're looking for people who can communicate, think creatively, can work together in teams."
The irony remains, however, that unless state college and university funding increases and stabilizes, we risk having a system that is both too cheap to provide that necessary quality and too expensive for the value of education actually received.
That has left higher education officials trying to find ways to do more with less, mostly by advocating that institutions should have more discretion to spend money as they see fit. Florida State president Eric Barron believes that might help him hold on to some faculty who are wooed away to sometimes less prestigious institutions simply because FSU can't match their offers. He advocates giving university presidents benchmarks — graduation rates, measurable impact by faculty in their fields and the like — and if they meet them, granting them more freedom in their budgets.
Dean Colson, the new head of the Board of Governors, recognizes where the university system needs to go. A strong public university system will likely always lose some bright students to elite institutions elsewhere, but its job is to educate well those who do come and have that quality recognized. Florida continues to be battered in national rankings, including the controversial U.S. News list. UF is the state's highest-ranked public school at No. 58. California has six institutions in the top 50.
To help remedy that, the Board of Governors has drawn up a 13-year strategic plan. Among the more promising ideas: Increase faculty membership in national academies from the current 38 to 75 by 2025. Being elected to one of the academies is a prestigious recognition of accomplishment in a professor's field. California's flagship university, Berkeley, has 139 academy members. Even amid all of its own problems, the California system added 15 just last year.
Such faculty usually cost a lot to attract. But once here, they will bring in research dollars — and prestige — that will more than pay for their costs. That's the kind of ambition Florida needs to pursue to raise its academic status. As Colson puts it, these top professors "will often pay for themselves."
For that to happen, Florida needs to shed its longtime reluctance to pay for quality higher education, or what Reed calls the state's motto: "We're cheap and we're proud of it." Graham looks to the Board of Governors — and four new members appointed by Scott — for leadership. But it will also require the investment of the Legislature. As Graham rightly argues, "If 2012 is not the year to avoid hemorrhaging of funding for higher ed, when will it be?"
Jim Verhulst can be reached at jverhulst @tampabay.com.