Major Quotas

Florida board moves toward requiring specific percentages of undergraduates to specialize in certain areas that the state needs.
April 27, 2005

In a move that has angered presidents and faculty leaders in Florida, the board that governs the state's colleges is moving toward adopting specific goals for the share of students who major in certain fields that board members consider high priorities for the state.

A committee of the Board of Governors of Florida's 11-campus university system approved a plan last week calling for specific targets to be set for nine fields: computer science, design and construction, education, electronic media, health, mechanical science, medical science, natural science and technology, and "high wage careers."

While the board didn't set the goals for each of those areas, members had been considering a requirement proposed by a board subcommittee that 50 percent of majors had to be in those fields, and several have voiced support for that level as an overall goal.

Exactly how the plan would work is unclear, and officials of the Florida Department of Education said that they could not provide data that compare the number of bachelor's degrees in those fields compared to current enrollment trends. The data the department did provide included figures for the numbers of undergraduates enrolled in upper division (junior and senior level) courses in certain areas. And while those areas don't match those approved by the board subcommittee, they suggest that major changes would be needed for the board's priorities to come close to 50 percent.

Systemwide, business and education are now the top majors, but it is unclear if business would count as a "high wage careers" area. And areas of study in which the board is less interested outperform those that they want to encourage. For example, there are more upper division students in visual and performing areas (4,502) than there are in computer science (3,925). Students majoring in English, literature and general humanities (7,535) outpace those in health professions (7,074). And plenty of popular majors -- psychology (6,499), social sciences (9,680), and parks and leisure studies (1.041) -- attract many students, but not the board's interest.

At a meeting last week, officials estimated that only 40 percent of majors were in the priority areas, although the percentage is as low as 30 percent at some institutions. Board members said that they believed they could reach their targets in part because the university system is expected to undergo significant growth between now and 2012, when the targets would be met.

While Department of Education officials could not discuss the plan, board members have defended it by saying that the state needs graduates in those areas. University presidents, in turn, have warned that the plan could force them to set strict quotas on certain programs -- a prospect that they said would be educationally unsound and impractical.

Faculty members are also blasting the idea.

"What this shows is that the business ethic has become the only ethic in town," said Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, which is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Auxter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida, said that the irony in the proposal was that the board members were claiming to make tough business choices about priorities, but failing to respect "the market forces" of student choices.

"Of course the majors they've identified are important," said Auxter, citing the need in the state for more teachers and nurses. And he said that professors support the ideas of using incentives -- like scholarships and loan forgiveness -- to encourage more students to major in those areas. But he said that students expect to be able to decide whether they want to major in English or philosophy, too.

Auxter said that if the plan goes forward, it won't change students' behavior -- since many of those who want to become English majors lack the science preparation to go into computer science or medicine.

"They are trying to coerce students to go into these programs that they don't want to, but they aren't prepared to go into," he said. "If Florida closes up all the slots in English and philosophy and the students can't study that here, they will just go to Georgia."


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