STEM DEGREES: colleges shift funding to the sciences

UTSA’s College of Liberal and Fine Arts (COLFA) has seen its funding increase by 22.4 percent over the last four years, a respectable amount for the university’s largest college both in terms of enrolled students and number of awarded degrees. So why did the College of Science, which accounts for only 17 percent of all students, have spending increase of over 35 percent?
Many leaders in higher education believe that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields will be at the center of job growth in the coming years. The current CEO of the Math and Science Initiative and former Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UT-Austin Mary Ann Rankin believes, “The lifeblood of our country is innovation and the creation of new knowledge and technology.”
Rankin, in an interview with the Texas Tribune, acknowledges that the U.S. is no longer a leader in science and math related fields: “In the era of Sputnik, there was this urgency around math and science and achievement in these areas, which sparked everybody’s interest and commitment. Somehow, we’ve lost that.”
For example, the New York Times reported that only seven percent of all eighth graders in the U.S. reached an advanced level in eighth grade math, compared to the 47 percent in South Korea and 48 percent in Singapore.
“These numbers are a disgrace, honestly,” Rankin said. “We wouldn’t tolerate it if it was one of our sports teams competing internationally. The whole country would be up in arms.”
According to Raymund Paredes, Texas Higher Education Commissioner, jobs in STEM-related fields are in high demand. “We have a shortage of basic scientists, particularly in the physical fields, chemistry and physics,” Paredes said to lawmakers at a recent hearing. “We have a shortage of physicians, a shortage of pharmacists and we’re projecting a shortage of veterinarians who treat large animals. We have a shortage of high-skilled fields across the board.”
In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Tom Luce, former United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development and current chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative, stated, “We have about 3.5 million unfilled jobs in this country at a time of high unemployment because we don’t have enough skilled workers.”
“Everything in the future is heading toward science, technology, engineering, mathematics,” explained Brady Alger, coordinator for Engineering Outreach at UTSA’s College of Engineering. “Even if you do fine arts, you still have to know math.”
Because STEM degrees have taken on a new importance, degrees in the liberal and fine arts field have taken a backseat when administrators look to bring in new talent. This has been the case at state schools such as UTSA, and at liberal arts colleges as well.
“I think that the main issue here is that we tend to lose focus on the other aspects that bring strength to our society,” said Rosalyn Huff, who represented COLFA in UTSA’s Student Government Association (SGA) last year. “The main thing that people focus on is ‘What do I want to get paid for?’”
While many liberal arts colleges have shifted more toward STEM enrollment, some have not been so fortunate. Lon Morris, a two-year college in Jacksonville, Texas, was forced to close in 2012 due to a lack of enrollment. According to the San Antonio Express-News, Richard Vedder, director for the Center for College Affordability, predicted that similar colleges will “wither away.”
In a study by Michigan State, professor Roger Balwin claimed the number of “true liberal arts colleges,” defined as those colleges that award less than 60 percent of their degrees in professional fields, is rapidly declining. In 1990, by Balwin’s count, there were 212 liberal arts colleges, but today, that number is just 130.
Local liberal arts colleges are no exception, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics. About 25 percent of degrees awarded at St. Mary’s University in 2011 were in professional fields; that number jumps to more than 30 percent at Trinity University and more than 40 percent at the University of the Incarnate Word.
Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) was on par with St. Mary’s and in 2011, awarded about a quarter of its degrees in professional fields. Founded in 1895, OLLU has seen its attendance drop by nearly 600 students since President Tessa Martinez Pollack took over the university in 2002. To help stave off losses and to prevent tuition increases, Pollack eliminated a dozen degree majors last fall, most of them liberal arts majors. This included what many saw as integral parts to the university’s mission, such as a degree in religious studies.
Many of the majors cut by OLLU had an enrollment of less than 5 students, and the university was expected to save around $350,000. However, Pollack was fired from her job this past February 2013, a sign that many liberal arts colleges are still proud of their historical ties and see a role for liberal arts degrees.
Tyler Tulley, a religious studies major at OLLU, organized student protests when his degree and others were cut. By firing Pollack, Tulley said, in the San Antonio Express-News, he believes that the school’s trustees have “the university’s best interests at heart.”

“We’re approaching the future with a somber attitude,” Tulley went on to say. “We have the liberal arts to save.”
Vedder believes that the recent focus on STEM degrees is too expensive, according to the Express-News, since they require money to recruit top-tier faculty members and labs.
However, Baldwin made a sharp contrast between liberal arts colleges and public research institutions in the Express-News.
Recalling recent events at OLLU, Baldwin remarked of UTSA that “all of a sudden you’ve just become a mini version of the University of Texas at San Antonio instead of a distinctive liberal arts college in San Antonio.”
Unlike OLLU, UTSA has added liberal arts degrees in light of the recent push for STEM majors. For example, a global affairs degree was recently added to the Department of Political Science and Geography, a part of COLFA.
What makes UTSA different is its status as a public research university. Such colleges are not necessarily known for cultivating a liberal arts curriculum– according to the Huffington Post, “they (research universities) produce 70 percent of scientists, engineers and physicians and two-thirds of U.S. campus research.”
But unlike a private college, public universities are subject to funding from the state and those funds are decreasing for colleges across the country. According to a report by the National Science Foundation, state support for over 100 major research universities dropped 20 percent between 2002 and 2010.
However, some politicians– particularly Republican governors and congressmen– have recently advocated the merits of STEM degrees while downplaying the value of liberal arts. Notably, North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory has stated that he would base the cost of a degree at a state school on post-graduation employment rates.
“It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs,” McCrory said to radio host Bill Bennett in January. Although the education and political science major said he enjoyed his own education, McCrory was steadfast in his belief that the state should be able to regulate the prices of individual degrees.
“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.”
This sentiment is not limited to North Carolina–Florida Gov. Rick Scott has expressed similar beliefs.
“We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great,” Scott said in 2011. “Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who
can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”
Brandy Alger is a student in the College of Engineering and frequently speaks to high school students to encourage them to seek degrees in STEM fields. Still, she believes that although STEM degrees may be more valuable, the degree shouldn’t necessarily cost less.
“I don’t think it should be cheaper, but I think there should be more scholarships as incentive,” Alger said. “We don’t just need more engineers and scientists. We do need people who can read, who can write, who can do art.”
Meanwhile, in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has made a push for $10,000 degrees. The call for cheaper degrees is a result of increasing tuition costs and a perceived inability for students to find a job after graduation and pay back their student loans.
Although not specifically geared towards STEM and other professional degrees, very few of the $10,000 degrees currently offered are for liberal arts degrees, wrote the Texas Tribune.
And while state lawmakers have sought to eliminate state funding for students seeking a degree in the liberal arts, Congress is attempting to eliminate federal funding for the liberal arts in favor of research in the physical sciences. As House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said, “Funds currently spent by the government on social science, including politics of all things, would be better spent finding cures to diseases.”
John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University argued that political institutions have a sizable influence over how medicine is developed and administered and asserted that the social and physical sciences would benefit if they both received federal funding.
“Cantor’s goal, curing diseases and saving lives can be better accomplished by including social and political science alongside the ‘hard’ sciences and medicine,” Sides stated.
If you have a company, “you have to have many different aspects for that organization to work,” Huff explained. “You can’t just have someone studying biology or chemistry.”
Alger also believes that the fine arts and STEM fields can work side-by-side when taught at UTSA: “I feel like there’s a balance between the dichotomy that needs to happen– more math in the liberal and fine arts, more arts, public speaking and writing skills in the college of engineering,” Alger said. “I feel like an artist and an engineer in one mind can make more of a difference than just an artist or just an engineer.”