Over the last several years, STEM education has entered the forefront of public discourse regarding institutional spending and state finances. Last week, The New York Times published an article detailing the rising trends of promoting STEM education and cutting funding for liberal arts education.
To anyone affiliated with an educational institution, this is not news. However, recent rhetoric surrounding the status of the humanities within our cultural lexicon has proved to be more incendiary and vitriolic than in the past.
In the fourth GOP debate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio asserted, “Welders make more than philosophers,” in an effort to promote vocational education while simultaneously undercutting the liberal arts. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s suggested last month that students majoring in French literature should not receive any government assistance in terms of funding.
“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will,” Governor Bevin said after announcing his educational spending plan. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.” Bevin majored in Japanese and East Asian Studies at Washington and Lee University.
Government policy both fuels and serves as a byproduct of this rhetoric. “When it comes to dividing the pot of money devoted to higher education, at least 15 states offer some type of bonus or premium for certain high-demand degrees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures,” the Times article details (The New York Times, “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding,” 02.21.2016). Justifications for these spending measures often involves politicians asserting that STEM majors yield higher salaries and therefore give back more to society and the economy than those who choose to study the humanities. It’s rhetoric we’ve all seen before.
The veracity of these claims are contentious at best. The value of a liberal arts education transcends the typical argument of “expanding your horizons” and self improvement. According to the Senior Vice President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Debra Humphreys, “Research by the association shows that employers are not as focused on individual majors as they are on the kind of broad-based analytic, communications and problem-solving skills that a humanities education specializes in.”
While comparatively lower than their STEM counterparts, salaries for humanities students have steadily increased over the last year and are projected to grow.
Though the attack on humanities education is certainly not a new concept, such egregious assaults on the liberal arts from both sides of the aisle have increased in a manner unseen before. The value of a liberal arts degree proves to be a controversial issue in the national discussion of state and federal education funding.
The affordability and returns on investment of higher education are certainly valid concerns for government entities, especially when considering that this often disproportionately impacts lower-income individuals. However, upholding STEM education–which is certainly a crucial component of societal improvement and economic stimulus–while also disparaging and financially gutting the humanities is not the solution.
Access to higher education was and is as much a byproduct of government policy as it is of the economic well-being of the nation. Subsequently, the rising costs of college tuition nationwide that account for rising student debt and financial burdens are as much a result of declining governmental support for public educational institutions as the economy. Focus for politicians should return to aiding public institutions in a way that aims at making college tuition affordable, lowering debt and borrowing rates, expanding federal student loan programs and granting scholarships to low-income and minority students.