It’s a common refrain of politicians, educational advocates and many business leaders. The output of science and technical graduates in the United States is dangerously behind other countries.
But a new study [PDF], led in part by a Rutgers University professor, posits instead that the last 30 years has seen no significant change in the number of U.S. graduates in so-called STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields.
However, this new research shows the highest-achieving students in those majors are increasingly fleeing those fields at a higher rate than in the past.
“It’s a mistake to focus solely on boosting the number of science and math students,” says Harold Salzman, the Rutgers sociologist who teamed with B. Lindsay Lowell, a demographer at Georgetown University on the study. “Employers want more employment readiness, not more employees.”
That comes in contrast to a national dialogue in recent years.
A 2006 National Academies’ report called to “enlarge the pipeline of students” destined for STEM work. Science magazine reports that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has written on the divide and President Obama has called for more science teachers to grow the workforce’s number.
Yet, the analysis by Salzman and Lowell of six U.S. government longitudinal surveys conducted between 1972 and 2005 also showed that more than two times as many STEM students are graduating U.S. colleges and universities every year than the number of available industry jobs.
More than 600,000 science and engineering degrees come annually from U.S. universities, yet only roughly 120,000 jobs are generated in these fields [PDF, 83]. The steady production of such graduates yet their overabundance compared to career opportunities is the result of a variety of issues, including the outsourcing of some positions. Read more about graduation rates by race, gender and visa status here [PDF].
“The shortage is not in bodies but in the skills they need,” he says. “So universities are trying more co-ops and job-readiness programs.”
The number of students in specific STEM majors has largely followed the trends reflected in their industry counterparts, the recent analysis [PDF] also showed.
“So, we saw huge growth in computer science degrees conferred in the 1990s until the [dot com] bubble,” Salzman says.
Likewise, there has been recent growth in the number of petroleum engineering students, he says.
“These majors are following market trends.”
The analysis offered nothing more specific than national figures, Salzman says, as sample sizes are too small to delve into any regional, gender or race distinctions. But signs are there of the move in the Philadelphia region.
Last May, Delaware County Community College launched $60 million in renovation and new construction [PDF] to better outfit its campus for STEM and local industry call for specific training. Drexel University runs a STEM scholarship program to diversify its student population around practical learning, and Temple University has offered a lecture series on integrating those research fields.
In addition to better training students in these fields, a priority might be made to focus on higher performing students who have been opting out of STEM majors at an increasing rate, Salzman says. The percentage of top quintile students who pursued STEM programs in college more than halved from a peak of 28.7 percent in 1992 to 1997 to 13.8 percent in 2000 to 2005, as Science reported.
“Instead, they have been fleeing to places like Wall Street,” Salzman says. Read more about the correlation between education achievement and supply here [PDF].
“We are not suggesting students should stop entering these programs nor should programs halt an expansion,” Salzman says. “This is about the priorities once they are there.”
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