Florida law offering ‘BOGO’ tuition for STEM majors raises faculty concerns

The provision is part of legislation signed into law this week.
University of South Florida mechanical engineer David D’Angelo, left, and research engineer Yehia Helwa, (both) at the USF Institute of Applied Engineering. The state is incentivizing students to enroll in STEM related fields at state universities.
University of South Florida mechanical engineer David D’Angelo, left, and research engineer Yehia Helwa, (both) at the USF Institute of Applied Engineering. The state is incentivizing students to enroll in STEM related fields at state universities. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published July 5, 2021

A new law signed into effect last week will offer some students a “buy-one-get-one-free” deal on tuition for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses at state universities in Florida.

While the bill is intended to encourage more students to enter the workforce in STEM-related fields, many faculty members across the state are concerned the law will have unintended consequences of overcrowded classes and students pursuing majors for financial reasons.

The “BOGO” provision is tucked in HB 1261, legislation that provides universities with protection from liability over COVID-19 related lawsuits and offers the out-of-state grandchildren of Florida residents in-state tuition.

It states that undergraduate students who are enrolled in one of eight programs selected by the Board of Governors and have completed 60 credit hours within two years will receive a tuition and fee waiver for every upper-division course they enroll in. The bill also requires universities to publish an online dashboard by academic discipline including post-graduate salaries, median student loan debt and anticipated monthly loan payments on their admissions page.

A bill analysis estimates the BOGO provision will save the average student around $5,991.79 from their total degree cost. The Board of Governors estimated the cost to the university system at around $25 million in the first year. The bill, coincidentally, offers $25 million in incentive funding to be dispersed among the universities.

“We have to get people into the workforce that meet the needs of our state,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said in a recent address to the Board of Governors. “We need more engineers. We need more nurses, and we need them desperately. We need folks who are going to be able to build our roadways, people who are going to be able to help us plan for the future. What are those degrees and how can we help encourage people to go into them?”

The Board identified the eight areas of strategic emphasis as information technology, computer engineering, management information systems, civil engineering, electrical and electronics engineering, computer and information sciences, mathematics and physics.

Christy England, vice chancellor of academic and student affairs for the Board, said in a presentation that the Board analyzed numerous statistics to come up with those programs. A key data point, she said, was the gap between annual workforce demand for STEM grads and the number of degrees awarded, and upper-division enrollment.

William Self, chair of the advisory council of faculty senates to the Board of Governors, said faculty were concerned this would be pushing students into majors for financial reasons.

“And then there’s a real concern that a number of those students will not be successful,” he said. “So we’ll actually be encouraging student behavior for the wrong reason and ultimately those students won’t be successful.”

Florida State University Faculty Senate President Eric Chicken said as a professor of statistics, he understands the need for STEM education. But financial incentives are not the answer, he said. He worries whether students will be adequately prepared to take those courses.

“Our economy certainly needs more STEM workers for growth and innovation,” he said. “I think that the issues the faculty have mostly are concerns for the students. ...I think we’re really setting people up for failure here.”

University of South Florida Faculty Senate President Tim Boaz said as a parent of a recent college graduate and student who is in college, he understands the sentiment of preparing students to get jobs.

But, he said, the bill requires further thinking. If universities do see increased enrollments in STEM majors as the Legislature intends to encourage, the costs to the university will go up and class sizes will likely get larger.

“We’re taking a pay cut for providing courses in these programs,” he said. “How are we going to manage that?”

Additionally, he pointed to a study that found that philosophy majors earned more at a mid-career level than some business administration, biology and nursing majors.

“Some students may not have the passion or aptitude (for STEM fields) and therefore may not be successful there,” he said. “It’s better for students to figure out what they’re passionate about and get the degree that’s right for them.”

A drop in grade-point averages could lead to a loss of Bright Futures funding and additional costs, he said.

“They’ve got the best of intentions here,” he said. “But I think we need to be more careful and more mindful about how we’re going about this.”