Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Sen. Dennis Baxley is right — some college majors have less value than others, perhaps even less deserving of support by the Bright Futures scholarship program.
Is there a completely objective way of choosing such majors without the messiness of political input? I’m sure there are many. But let’s take a look at one simple one.
If a student succeeds in earning a bachelor’s degree, then it can be argued that this student should end up in a job that she or he couldn’t have gotten without going to college. There is a technical term for a student who earns a bachelor’s degree and ends up in a job that generally doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree — underemployment.
If we are going to pick winners and losers, perhaps the losers should be those majors that have the highest underemployment rates — that is, the majors for which the highest percentages of bachelor’s degree graduates end up in jobs that generally don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
The New York Federal Reserve Bank publishes a list of college majors with some basic data on unemployment and underemployment rates and early and mid-career median wages. Their most recent update was last month.
So what majors does the New York Fed say have the highest underemployment rates?
In order — Criminal Justice, Performing Arts, Agriculture, Leisure and Hospitality, and Animal and Plant Sciences.
If you were going to use underemployment rates to decide which majors should have their Bright Futures support reduced, as Ocala Republican Sen. Baxley proposed in one version of Senate Bill 86 (which has gone through several changes already and may not include this provision in a final version), then those five majors would lead the list.
But it seems unlikely that students majoring in Criminal Justice, Agriculture, Leisure and Hospitality, and Animal and Plant Sciences would have their support reduced. In fact, Agriculture, Animal Sciences, Plant Sciences, Hospitality and Tourism are all on the Board of Governors list called “Programs of Strategic Emphasis.” So is “Criminalistics and Criminal Science.” The Programs of Strategic Emphasis is a list of desirable majors used to evaluate Florida’s public universities.
Why are these poorly performing college majors on the this list of desirable majors? The hospitality and tourism industries have tremendous political clout in Florida, and programs in hospitality management are well-established at the state’s public universities. Agriculture is another political giant. In fact, the present president of the Florida Senate is a prominent member of the state’s agriculture industry. And with so many police officers holding bachelors’ degrees in criminal justice, do you really think that major is going to be neglected on the Programs of Strategic Emphasis?
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The bottom line is that whenever a body like the Board of Governors picks winners and losers, those picks are political. The Board of Governors is a political body — that is, it is composed of human beings who have their own priorities and beliefs. We cannot expect them not to act on those priorities and beliefs.
Which brings us back to whether there should be winning and losing college majors when it comes to Bright Futures, as one version of Senate Bill 86 would have done. If it passes the Legislature and is signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (who will probably not do so), then the Board of Governors will make a political judgment about what majors should be Bright Futures losers. They will cite data in making their decision, but the data will play only a minor role in how the decision is made. There is no way that hospitality, agriculture or criminal justice would appear on the list of Bright Futures losers. But it is certain that performing arts will, along with other majors widely believed to be associated with liberalism like fine arts, anthropology and sociology.
The Bright Futures losers list would be subjective and ideological. It’s another reason to oppose Senate Bill 86.
Paul Cottle, a physics professor at Florida State, was on the committee that wrote Florida’s K-12 science standards in 2007-2008 and was chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education in 2013-2014.