Tuition: a conservative view

It’s a fact of life that certain programs cost more to study than others.  Presumably this is due to expected earnings in one’s career; those who will earn most can afford to pay more tuition.  For years two to five, Applied Science students will pay 7% more per credit (the extra year results in even higher total tuition costs) than students in other faculties while Commerce students will pay 48% more for their final three years of study (Source: http://www.students.ubc.ca/coursesreg/tuition-fees-deposits/tuition-fees/#exceptions).  If future earnings really are the standard by which tuition should be judged, then we would expect a tuition distribution where Fine Arts < Social Arts (e.g. English, history, etc.) < Social Sciences < Hard Sciences < Applied Sciences < Business.  Is that how it should be?  Should future starving artists have free tuition so as to limit their personal debt?  I submit not.

All public Canadian undergraduate tuition is subsidized by the government.  So given the government acknowledges the importance of higher education and puts a substantial amount of money behind the cause, taxpayers should be funding those students who will ultimately benefit society in the long run.  As long as we maintain adequate support for those least fortunate, we should (rationally) always be hedging our bets on those who have the most promise to provide substantial (i.e. ‘with substance’ not ‘greatly’) returns to society.  From society’s perspective, that means taxpayers and innovators.  But that doesn’t just mean supporting those who chose impactful careers, it means incentivizing them as well.

Suppose you’re an underprivileged student entering university.  You’re on the fence about your ambitions but realistically, you can’t afford to pursue an applied sciences degree, so you might choose something in the arts instead.  Is that going to benefit society as much as if you had chosen applied sciences?  I don’t think so – in fact I submit society has incentivized the wrong choice.

Let me step back for a moment and clarify the important distinction between contribution to society due to one’s own internal convictions and effectiveness, and contribution due to one’s educational background.  Clearly there are plenty of people who, regardless of their education, contribute greatly to society functionally and monetarily.  Those people would probably have done good no matter their major, so I specifically want to account for those people who contribute to society specifically due to their academic background, and see if there are differences.  With that in mind, I find it hard to argue that English or Fine Arts majors (no offense) contribute as much to society (specifically as a result of their educational background) as engineers do (note I’m not an engineering major).  Do I think undergraduate commerce majors contribute more than polisci majors?  Not really, but I don’t want to squabble about what lies inside the spectrum and what trumps what; I’m primarily interested in the opposite ends of the spectrum so we have something concrete to compare.  If you take issue with my contention about the difference between ‘functional’ and ‘nonfunctional’ majors, ask yourself this: how many ‘nonfunctional’ majors end up doing unskilled work like serving food at restaurants or bartending, and how many ‘functional’ majors end up doing that same work?  To me, there is a clear dichotomy.  A barista may contribute greatly to society, but it has nothing to do with his/her major.  Engineers can’t make that same claim (though they may also contribute to society outside the scope of their academic backgrounds).

So if the functional careers return more to society, why are we disincentivizing them by making them more costly for students?  Imagine telling your children “I prefer you eat healthy snacks rather than your Halloween candy, but if you eat healthy snacks you’re going to be grounded.”  It seems ludicrous to disincentivize those actions we prefer people take.  From that perspective, I submit what we should be doing is putting higher subsidies towards ‘functional’ degrees while reducing or eliminating subsidies on ‘nonfunctional’ degrees.  Ultimately, choosing a fine arts major, for example, represents an unnecessary luxury (for you can be an artist with no formal education but it is difficult to be a civil engineer with no qualifications) and that should be reflected in the tuition costs regardless of future earnings potentials.


Let me now consider a few counterarguments I can hear coming:

“The purpose of higher education isn’t to put people into functional careers, but to educate thinkers / You are drastically undervaluing the liberal arts education”

A: A taxpayer-subsidized liberal arts education falsely skews the appropriate proportion of ‘thinkers’ in society.  Why were there so few philosopher kings in Ancient Greece?  Perhaps partly because society can only afford to have a limited number of true ‘thinkers’; at the end of the day, the majority of us must still be ‘doers’.  Writers and artists are great for society, but so many such people with no formal education leads me to believe that the education isn’t the thing that makes them great at what they do, so why should society pay for it?  Great and deep thinkers often do have formal education backgrounds, but given their limited number, it tells me that education can’t produce intellectual greatness, only nurture it.  Frankly, far fewer intellectual greats exist than are admitted to educational institutions every year.  The importance of liberal arts is vastly diluted by the quantity of people who get that education.  We can disincentivize it and reduce the burden on society in two ways: greatly increase admissions standards or greatly reduce tuition subsidies.  I would prefer the former, because then at least it’s based on merit and not socioeconomic status, but that’s just me.

“The goal of society is ultimately to nurture the fine arts and self-expression, and the mechanism for doing that is through support by functional careers like engineering and business”

A: Even if I agreed with that assertion, it wouldn’t affect my arguments.  Whether or not society exists with the ultimate goal of free and full self-expression for all citizens does not mean that the goal of University is to make that happen.  Universities exist to train and educate people with skills they can employ to contribute to society.  So if a set of majors are not serving that need, they should make changes accordingly.  Again, here I distinguish between those people who contribute as a result of their education from those who contribute regardless/in spite of their education.

“University is about giving students a safe space to grow and learn together, so it doesn’t matter what major they choose.”

A: I disagree completely.  That’s a noble effect but not a primary goal of higher education.  You can have safe spaces for free speech and intellectual inquiry online or after work; you don’t need the government to subsidize tens of thousands of dollars for you to educate yourself in something you may(probably) not even end up using.

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