Should State Funding of College Scholarships Be Tied to Post-Grad Employment?
Longtime Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino wrote an article last week discussing a proposal in Florida’s legislature to cut public scholarship funding to college students majoring in areas of study that do not have an immediate path to employment after graduation.
Florida state senator Dennis Baxley was quoted “we should be concerned about subsidizing degrees that just lead to debt, instead of the jobs our students want and need . . . when it comes to taxpayer-subsidized education, there needs to be a link to our economy.”
The bill would require the state’s education leaders to meet annually to approve a list of degree programs that would be fully funded for scholarships and tuition-assistance grants. For each certificate and degree program, the state board must identify “occupations, current job openings, estimates of job growth, and employee wages.” Students in programs that are not on the list would receive a reduced amount of financial support.
Mr. Cerabino writes that there is a big problem with this view of higher education. He writes that it “distills higher education to a job-training program, which is a narrow, self-limiting view of what college can be at its best.” He writes that a college degree is often a starting point, not an endpoint, to a professional career. Forcing a student into a tech major isn’t doing anyone a favor when their interest lies in history or English or art literature.
Mr. Cerabino provides a list of famous business leaders and politicians whose undergraduate degrees were in history, philosophy, English, and theater. He writes that they have demonstrated that there is not a straight line to success and that education is never wasted. It’s his opinion that the state’s mission should be to support the students’ journeys rather than putting up roadblocks or pushing them off their paths and out of school.
I agree with Mr. Cerabino. My interest in majors as an undergraduate at Duke ranged from math and chemistry to German, English, and history, and I ultimately settled on history. My logic for exploring such a wide range of majors was that I was undecided as an 18-year-old freshman about going to medical school, law school, or business school. I found out that I could apply to all three with any of the degrees that I considered, so I chose the major whose courses I liked the most. Thankfully, the scholarships and financial aid that Duke awarded me were not affected by my selection.
Evidently, the senator sponsoring the bill majored in sociology and minored in psychology in college and returned to college to get a degree in mortuary science so he could find a job. I would argue that he should have known that neither of those first two degrees would lead to a job in those fields without adding a graduate degree.
I have two daughters currently enrolled in college, and both of them are keenly aware of the job opportunities for graduates in their field. One of them switched from a major in business to a major in psychology, and we had a conversation about what that meant vis-à-vis going to graduate school versus seeking a job after earning a bachelor’s degree. She switched to psychology because she was not interested in her business courses or a business major. She knows her education journey will be longer than four years.
Most college students are not naïve. At the same time, most have little exposure to the world beyond their immediate family and friends. As Mr. Carabino writes, “College is a chance for them to find their way. To expand the universe of their minds, to make them more informed citizens, to expose them to the breadth of the human experience and allow them to consider their place in it.”
I can see justification for this proposal as it applies to certificate programs. By their very nature, most certificates are oriented toward providing the type of education that leads to job or industry specific knowledge. On a standalone basis, a certificate is arguably worthless unless it leads to employment. A college degree, regardless of the subject area, is worth far more than a high school degree.
Applying this proposal to degrees is ridiculous in so many ways. On average, college graduates earn more in their lifetime than high school graduates. Depending on when you measure income post-graduation, history majors may earn more than engineering and computer science majors. Why? Because they go on to graduate school and become doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives. Engineers may earn more post-graduation, but over time, their salaries cap out.
The end game for 99 percent of college students is to get a decent job. The state of Florida shouldn’t try to direct them to the approved pathways to do that. The former Soviet Union tried that and look how that worked out.