22 August 2007

Baucus on free tuition

Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., proposes free college tuition for students majoring in math and science. (Via slashdot.)

There would be a stipulation that these students would have to work or teach in the field for at least four years afterwards.

The sentiment here is noble. However, I'm not sure something like this would work.

First, the service requirement could backfire. There are two ways in which I see it backfiring:

It would inhibit the creation of startup companies. (Since all companies are startup companies at some point, by definition, this is even worse than it sounds.) Technology startups are likely started by people who are just out of school, for the simple reason that the young have greater risk tolerance. But who's going to verify that the people at a startup are actually working and not just using their startup as a way to get free tuition? (This becomes particularly problematic if computer science is included in the list of funded fields, because the activity that goes on in a startup based around software probably doesn't look all that different, on the surface, than my kitchen table does right now.) Something that requires one to "work in the field" seems to encourage people to get "traditional" 9-to-5 jobs simply for bureaucratic purposes.

Also, you'd get bad teachers. You make teaching one of the options, you're essentially guaranteeing you'll get teachers who don't want to be there. It's the same reason that a lot of military people don't want the draft. If Senator Baucus walked into any university department of math or science he'd see that there are a lot of people who don't want to teach, but do it anyway because they have a financial incentive to -- we call them "professors" -- and they don't seem to do a great job of it. They have an incentive to show up to their classes but not to make them good. And bad teaching will just make math and science harder for the next generation.

Second, jobs typically taken by just-out-of-college math and science majors will start paying less. Right now, a large number of such individuals have to pay off their student loans, and they know this when deciding what level of pay they are willing to accept. If they don't have student loans, they'll be willing to accept lower pay. I am not an economist, so I don't know how big this effect would be, or more importantly what effect it would have on the salaries of those who are past the four-year period. I suspect it might drag them down as well. In the end, this would make the technical fields less attractive to students who are choosing what to study in college.

Third, math is hard! This applies to the sciences as well. This isn't really a problem with Baucus' plan, but it bears mentioning anyway. To understand anything well requires sustained intellectual effort. And our society does not value sustained intellectual effort; we denigrate people who are willing to do it, for the most part. (This is part of why nerds are unpopular.) I suspect that the Right Thing to do is not to just throw money at the problem and hope it will go away, but to try to change the culture. But how do you change a culture? You can't tell people what to think. You can't make people value intellectual effort more than they do. I suspect that the one thing that can be done is to improve teaching -- a lot of the people I've talked to who said they're not good at math or don't like math can trace this to a single bad teacher. But as I said, I think the Baucus plan would hurt teaching, thus making the problem worse.

The prevailing trend actually seems to be in the other direction -- some schools are now raising tuition in some fields, including engineering. (The article about Baucus' proposal refers to "a full scholarship to any high school graduate majoring in math, engineering, science or technology.")

Philip Greenspun once wrote about Tuition-Free MIT, in which he proposed that MIT should be tuition-free. Since essentially all students at MIT major in "math, engineering, science, or technology", the two plans are similar, except Greenspun's version is restricted to a single elite school, which in fact makes it quite different. I'm not sure how I feel about Greenspun's plan. (Disclaimer: I did my undergraduate work at MIT. I owe nothing for it, because my parents paid for it; I am almost certain they would be happier with me having my MIT bachelor's degree and that $100,000+ in their pockets than they are with me just having that degree.)


Anonymous said...

It's better to subsidize tuition through loans rather than grants. That way people will only pursue courses of study where there is some likelihood of them being able to earn money afterwards. That said, some flexibility should be built within the system (e.g. easy deferral policy, low rates, some grants issued), so that there is a pool of workers with expertise that can be used in a changing marketplace, or so that workers with obsolete skills can "re-tool."

Anonymous said...

It's better to subsidize tuition through loans rather than grants. That way people will only pursue courses of study where there is some likelihood of them being able to earn money afterwards.

All academic mathematics will then cease. I'd be drowning now -- as would everyone other than the landed gentry -- if I had to pay off student loans as a junior faculty member.

Michael Lugo said...


presumably faculty members would make more if it was expected that they had loans from graduate school to pay off.

I'm not sure if that would be enough to make the difference, though. Probably not.

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