Waving the waiver wand

Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) is planning to present legislation that would provide free tuition for math and science majors, provided that they work or teach in a related field for at least four years after graduation. The full legislation involves $25 billion in spending on education and includes additional spending on supplementing teacher wages in rural areas. (I’m sure it’s purely coincidence that 99% of the state of Montana is uninhabited rural.)

The goal, according to Sen. Baucus, is “…to better prepare children for school and get more of them into college to make the United States more globally competitive, particularly with countries like China and India”.

Waving the magic money wand at this problem is a typically ineffective political response, and it misunderstands the problem. College students who stay away from math and science majors typically do so for a combination of two reasons: (1) they are no good at math or science because they weren’t taught the subjects properly in K-12, and (2) they are culturally indoctrinated to having negative viewpoints on math and science.

Reason (2), the cultural reason, is the more serious and prevalent. Our pop culture today abhors academic excellence and the intellect in general and math/science fields in particular. Students are steeped in this culture from infancy and grow up with fixed and regularly reinforced negative ideas about math and science. You are not going to make this problem go away by offering free tuition, which generally benefits only the students who would have majored in math or science anyway. If you want to prepare students for careers in math and science, and if you want to train up the next generation of workers who can compete on the global scale, this cultural issue has got to be addressed. (And I don’t see how the federal government is qualified or even sanctioned to do so. A cultural problem requires a cultural response, not a government response.)

In fact, waiving tuition would probably have the effect of decreasing the proportion of qualified graduates in math and science. Waiving tuition would (maybe) increase the total number of students in math and science, but the people who are enticed by the money are likely to be the ones who are not skilled or do not like math or science well enough to major in those fields without the enticement. So it will merely become harder to find the math and science graduates who know what they are doing. (Assuming they complete their degrees at all.)

[Hat tip: Slashdot]


Filed under Education, Engineering, Higher ed, Math

3 responses to “Waving the waiver wand

  1. virusdoc

    I tend to be a little less pessimistic about the effectiveness of such a financial carrot to draw people into science/math degrees. Carrots are enticements, and as such generally are effective most with people who were already considering your product. For example, if you’re considering purchasing one of two cars, and both are otherwise nearly equivalent in your estimation, a rebate on one model might tilt the balance in its favor. I suspect the same thing happens in degree choice: there may be a large number of students who teeter between a science and a liberal arts degree. Perhaps they could be good at either and both seem interesting to them. Throw a carrot like free tuition into the equation, and you alter the algebra of the decision considerably.

    I don’t think you’d see hordes of horribly science-phobic students enter a science degree program just for free tuition. To do so would be a recipe for college failure on their part, and that’s too big a risk.

  2. My suspicion is that a plan like Baucus’ would make the problem worse, because the Baucus plan includes the stipulation that students would have to work or teach in science/math for four years after graduation. This would lead to people teaching who didn’t want to teach but did it since they had a powerful incentive to do so, thus depressing the state of math and science teaching in the schools beyond its current sad state.

  3. coderprof

    I am also somewhat less pessimistic about the plan (though perhaps equally cynical with the “rural” pay incentive provision).

    There are a lot of talented math/science/CS folks who would make fine teachers who simply can make far more money in private industry. How can we get some of these people into teaching instead of working for a Wall Street investment firm? Bribing people with free med school tuition works to get MDs into the military. Why not bribe people with free undergrad tuition to get them into teaching, if only on a temporary basis?

    My only concern would be to make sure standards of the undergraduate institutions are upheld. If they can’t hack math, they will get weeded out through the normal channels.