Friday, November 30, 2012

The Humanities as Sugar Daddy

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, the Governor of Florida set up a Task Force on higher education, and they decided that humanities majors should pay more than science majors for a college education. The thinking is that Florida wants more technology grads, and fewer humanities grads, and can get them by making humanities degrees more expensive so that students opt for science, math, and technology instead. They call this approach "market based," but its ignorance of basic economic realities is startling.

One of the hard truths of higher education is that some classes run at a profit and some run at a loss, and that the less-expensive, more-profitable classes are used to underwrite courses that are just as educationally necessary but cost more to run. The larger classes help pay for the smaller ones, the introductory classes help pay for the advanced ones, and the classes in "soft" subjects like English, history, or anthropology help pay for classes in "hard" disciplines like science and engineering.

This seems counter-intuitive to some non-academics who, having internalized the idea that science is where the money is, presume that offering science classes is also more profitable than offering classes on Latin poetry or sociological methods. But it is partly because STEM graduates make more money on average than humanities graduates that teaching STEM courses is more expensive: engineering professors make higher salaries than classics professors. Laboratory science (including computer science, certainly) also requires expensive labs and equipment, while most humanities courses require only a textbook (whose price is borne by the student, not the college). It's true that STEM fields bring in more external grant money, but that grant money largely gets eaten up by the lab facilities you have to build in order to apply for the grants.

The question "how can the humanities pay for themselves?" ignores the fact that the humanities not only pay for themselves but underwrite the sciences too. But ignoring that fact does not make it go away. And if Florida did manage to move a large number of its students out of profit-turning humanities classes into break-even-or-less science classes, it's likely that many public university budgets in Florida will go up in flames pose significant challenges.

Of course, that presumes that they can move students into their math and science classes at all. The "market-based" part of the solution ignores the fact that the Florida schools are actually part of a market. They compete for students with a large number of other schools. Being in a market means that you don't get to set prices unilaterally.

The English majors will simply go somewhere else. This is how markets work. Making a humanities degree pricier won't discourage people from pursuing that degree. It will only encourage them to buy it from your competitors instead of you. If it's too expensive to major in history at the University of Florida, students who want to major in history will either go to a private university or leave the state.

What Florida just decided to do is the equivalent to saying, "I'm tired of customers buying hamburgers instead of lobster. I'm going to make hamburgers twice as expensive as lobster." If you did that, you wouldn't sell more lobster. You'd just lose customers. They would go across the street to a restaurant where lobster was the same price, and burgers much cheaper. On the other hand, the few customers you did have would order nothing but the lobster, which you have to buy at expensive wholesale prices, instead of the ground beef that wholesales for so much less. And your restaurant will go broke pretty quickly, especially if you were already using the profits on all those hamburgers to subsidize the lobster side of the business.

But the Florida idea is ultimately just a newer version of something that's been happening in American universities for decades, as administrators demand a higher and higher profit margin from humanities classes in order to fund other priorities. For at least twenty-five years colleges have been increasing those profits by cutting humanities budgets, trying to spend less and less on those classes while keeping the revenue those courses bring in steady and growing. They shrink the number of full-time faculty in those fields, shift more and more teaching to ill-paid part-timers, and when push comes to shove cut the few subjects in the humanities, such as foreign-language instruction, that require higher overhead. Cutting costs AND upping prices is just an intensification of the normal strategy, busting the piggy bank open at two different ends.

Universities don't cut humanities budgets because the humanities are unprofitable. They cut humanities budgets because humanities are profitable, and schools are trying to squeeze more and more profit out of them. It's one of the few places to make money.  And schools are always hungry for more.

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