A Lovely Parting Gift

Aug 2, 2012 by

During the last legislative session, one legislator used his position as appropriations chair to push through a bill creating the state’s 12th university while cutting $300 million from the existing 11. Not one of the legislative leaders reined in his costly pet project. Some claimed the state needed more STEM degrees — short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as though UF’s College of Engineering is somehow a front for the liberal arts.

Despite editorials in opposition from all the state’s major newspapers, as well as the well-reasoned advice from the Council of 100, Gov. Rick Scott, once hesitant on the issue, signed the bill into law, declaring: “At a time when the number of graduates of Florida’s universities in the STEM fields is not projected to meet workforce needs, the establishment of Florida Polytechnic University will help us move the needle in the right direction. Failing to meet this challenge will be costly to our state for decades.”

The governor’s statement went unchallenged. Even those opposed to creating a 12th university in a shaky economy tend to agree that STEM degrees are needed. But are they? What does the data indicate?

According to Florida’s Board of Governors, our 11 universities offer degrees in 16 STEM disciplines, with differences among them. These degrees are rigorous for students and expensive for the universities, especially with other universities recruiting professors with the offer of higher salaries.

According to the governor’s Department of Economic Opportunity, STEM-related jobs account for about 10 percent of Florida’s job market, a number that closely mirrors the nation’s. And over the next seven years, the DEO projects that STEM-related jobs in Florida will grow at a faster rate — 2.16 percent versus 1.56 percent for non-STEM jobs.

Still, even with a slightly faster growth rate, the actual number of jobs will be small since STEM is such a small sector of the market. This is simple math, a subject I excel at even with my non-STEM degrees.

And how do we know the jobs will be there? The Washington Post this month published a story under the headline: U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there. It quoted one woman who gave up trying to find a permanent job in her field three years after earning her doctorate, and another who was laid off after 20 years of designing pharmaceuticals for drug giants.

According to Jim Austin, editor of Science Careers, “Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.”

Several factors explain this trend of unemployment in the scientific fields: the supply of scientists has grown faster than the number of academic positions; research jobs have taken heavy hits over a decade of mergers, stagnating profits and job outsourcing; and there’s declining investment in research and development.

Now, the $10 billion federal-stimulus injection that created or retained 50,000 science jobs is running out, putting those jobs at risk as well.

Against this backdrop, the law creating Florida Polytechnic requires that by the end of 2016, it be fully accredited and functioning with at least 1,244 full-time students, half of whom are pursuing STEM degrees. If it meets its goals, that means Polytechnic would have 622 STEM students in four years.

Compare that to Georgia Tech, where 92 percent of its 20,941 students were seeking STEM degrees last year. Or better yet, let’s compare it to Florida’s existing universities.

According to a Board of Governors report, 20 percent of degrees awarded by Florida’s universities last year were in the STEM fields, or a total of 14,855 degrees. The University of Florida awarded the most, with 30 percent of degrees, or 4,430 students.

At a June meeting of the board, FSU officials said that with $50 million — a lot less than the cost of building a new university — they could double the size of their STEM program.

If increasing these degrees remains our goal, wouldn’t it be more efficient and effective to invest limited dollars in the existing, growing and accredited programs at FSU, UF and the other state universities?

With a better understanding of the outlook, and what is already being offered, the case for STEM does not match the governor’s call to action.

Which begs the question, is the creation of the 12th university justified at this time, or is it just a lovely (and costly) parting gift for the Senate Appropriations Chair?

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