Waving the waiver wand

August 22, 2007, 2:49 pm

Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) is planning to present legislation that would provide free tuition for math and science majors, provided that they work or teach in a related field for at least four years after graduation. The full legislation involves $25 billion in spending on education and includes additional spending on supplementing teacher wages in rural areas. (I’m sure it’s purely coincidence that 99% of the state of Montana is uninhabited rural.)

The goal, according to Sen. Baucus, is “…to better prepare children for school and get more of them into college to make the United States more globally competitive, particularly with countries like China and India”.

Waving the magic money wand at this problem is a typically ineffective political response, and it misunderstands the problem. College students who stay away from math and science majors typically do so for a combination of two reasons: (1) they are no good at math or science because they weren’t taught the subjects properly in K-12, and (2) they are culturally indoctrinated to having negative viewpoints on math and science.

Reason (2), the cultural reason, is the more serious and prevalent. Our pop culture today abhors academic excellence and the intellect in general and math/science fields in particular. Students are steeped in this culture from infancy and grow up with fixed and regularly reinforced negative ideas about math and science. You are not going to make this problem go away by offering free tuition, which generally benefits only the students who would have majored in math or science anyway. If you want to prepare students for careers in math and science, and if you want to train up the next generation of workers who can compete on the global scale, this cultural issue has got to be addressed. (And I don’t see how the federal government is qualified or even sanctioned to do so. A cultural problem requires a cultural response, not a government response.)

In fact, waiving tuition would probably have the effect of decreasing the proportion of qualified graduates in math and science. Waiving tuition would (maybe) increase the total number of students in math and science, but the people who are enticed by the money are likely to be the ones who are not skilled or do not like math or science well enough to major in those fields without the enticement. So it will merely become harder to find the math and science graduates who know what they are doing. (Assuming they complete their degrees at all.)

[Hat tip: Slashdot]

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