Florida should charge less for in-demand degrees


Includes the following majors: computer engineering, aerospace engineering, bioengineering and chemical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering

2012 median salary: $58,581

2011 median salary: $58,802

Percent change: -0.4% (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / November 5, 2009)

During the summer, Gov. Rick Scott moseyed into a meeting of the board that oversees the state's university system and implored it to keep tuition unsustainably low.

That was after he hacked $300 million out of the universities' budgets.

Scott said he wanted Florida to have the best universities in the nation, and also the cheapest.

He acknowledged that universities are as important to this state's economy as our coveted sunshine — without universities we wouldn't have a work force to attract business — but he also made very clear he didn't want to invest in them.

I wrote at the time that somebody needed to tell the governor he can't have it both ways.

Finally, somebody is doing just that.

The governor's own Blue Ribbon Task Force on Higher Education is about to finalize its report, six months in the making, that proposes some radical — at least for the governor and Legislature — ideas.

Scott is a businessman, and the task force tried to put its findings in language he could understand.

"You have to spend money to attract money," wrote Dale Brill, chairman of the task force and president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, in a draft of the report.

And if the Legislature and the governor don't fund universities as they should? Then, the report says, universities need to be given the power to raise tuition in ways that help turn out the kind of work force that will make Florida appealing to business.

The task force proposes letting institutions charge a student majoring in physics or engineering less than someone like me, who majored in journalism.

The idea is to steer students into the professions that will be in demand, and judging by the online job boards in Florida, we're talking health care (nurses, physician assistants), computer science (network administrators, software engineers and programmers) and finance (accountants, auditors, analysts).

Funny, newspaper columnists didn't show up on the list. Neither did psychologists or general-business jobs, two of the 15 most popular majors among new students this fall at the University of Central Florida.

Actually, UCF has a decent track record when it comes to students choosing so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). The top three most popular majors among new students this fall are biomedical sciences, biology and mechanical engineering.

About 15 percent of the degrees UCF awarded this year were in STEM fields.

But as a state, we're falling way behind.

The number of students who graduated from Florida universities with degrees in natural sciences and engineering is well below states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The number of natural-sciences and engineering degrees in this state has dropped since 2004 and has remained fairly stagnant at about 13.5 percent through 2009, the most recent data available.

For someone like Paul Cottle, a physics professor at Florida State University, giving hard sciences and other STEM fields a tuition edge is common sense.

"In order to get more students to pursue these majors, we need to do everything we can," Cottle said. "The negative tuition differential is one thing we can add to the stack."