The U.S. spends $810 billion per year on education and among 11 significant countries (excluding China), ranks 9th in science and 10th in math. At $7,743/student/year, we spend 40% more than the average of the next 5 big spenders.  Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are acknowledged to be the foundation for a competitive workforce, and international competitiveness is essential to creating meaningful, well-paying jobs here in the U.S.  We outspend our competitors but we don’t achieve matching educational results.

A few regard it as crass, but many of us would prefer public scholarship money carefully directed to doing the most economic good for the public, rather than permissively thrown at “self-fulfillment” for youth who may or may not graduate in a major that may never earn a living wage for them and their family.  This is not a radical call to a revamping all curriculum, teachers, and institutions.  It’s just a call for sane answers to two questions.  First, should there be a public policy preference on who goes into higher education?  And second, should there be a public policy preference among subject majors?  Each question stresses preferences not outright command or embargo.

Current public policy at the federal level does not give grant preference for academic excellence.  The Pell and FSEOG grants are earned based solely on financial need and other federal grants are earned due to financial need or recent military service, or attendance in a college of education.  Federal grant money flows regardless of the likelihood for timely graduation and regardless of likelihood that a graduate in the chosen major could find a job that supports anyone without supplemental public welfare, again except for teachers.

Most voters want public money invested where it’s most likely to pay economic dividends and they know that in college. “retention and graduation rates are markedly lower for students who have performed poorly in high school or who do poorly on standardized admissions tests.”

Thus, many states condition their grants on a demonstration of prior academic prowess.  For example Georgia’s hope scholarship requires a 3.0 high school grade point average.  Maryland asks for a 2.5 grade point average and financial need.   Texas’ TEXAS Grant requires modest academic prowess and some level of financial need.   But the federal government feels no need for reassurance that public grant money is directed to the students who have financial need and are most likely to graduate.

Although the U.S. needs more advanced STEM graduates, Washington seems clueless.  The STEM Jobs Act of 2012 passed the House but is unlikely to be considered in the Senate.  That Act would give an immigration visa to any foreign student who graduated from a U.S. college with at least a master’s degree in a STEM major.  Perversely, some Senators objected, claiming that visas would unfairly be redirected to immigrants with a high level of skill in STEM instead of to an immigrant with no such skills…  Unfair to whom?  Who do these Senators think they represent?

A similar proposal arose in Florida as a means to attract STEM-skilled graduates and employers who need STEM-skilled workers.  Governor Scott proposed that the tuition rates for STEM majors be frozen for a number of years.  Secondly he mused whether it might be possible to offer a limited number of degrees for a bundled tuition of just $10,000.  The arts departments at universities actively predictably oppose the STEM proposal.  And in a recent Quinnipiac poll, respondents strongly oppose, 66 to 26 percent, charging lower tuition to students who major in subjects that lead to higher-paying jobs.  Perhaps they are jealous or perhaps they think future earnings is enough of a reward.  But they did not think hard enough to realize that their own self-interest is tied to students who later earn more.  Those students will become the most productive taxpayers and the workers most likely to keep jobs in the U.S.  Opinion poll opposition to encouraging students to select a lucrative major could depend on how the question was sequenced and worded. 

On the other hand, it is no surprise that college administrators lampooned a $10k degree as a gimmick although it’s just 23% below the current average price of a 4-year degree at Florida’s colleges.  Their aggressive construction programs (up 9% in 2011) must depend on higher levels of tuition.  Many serious students would gladly graduate without indenturing themselves to a $26,500 student loan

Public policy needs to embody sane answers to the questions of who gets grants and for which majors.  The public is not getting the best value for its money, yet the education industry has rigid practices and 3.5 million on the payroll who seem convinced they know best and are doing it.  Education also has a large federal bureaucracy led by politicians with bizarre agendas.  As well there are thousands of small, highly political boards of education with “local” issues such as scrounging for retirement contributions.   With that backdrop, change benefiting the consumer may have to come slowly – but it’ll never come if the public doesn’t demand better results for its educational dollars.   

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida and following public policy from a consumer’s perspective.