Thursday, July 17, 2008

STEM Education Follow-Up

When I reported yesterday that the U.S. is falling behind a set of goals for education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields set by a coalition of business groups, I apparently touched on a hot topic. There has been some aggressive discussion in the comments, enough to lead me to do some research of my own into the statistics.

All of the numbers that I'm going to use come from a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that tallied bachelor's degrees granted in 2005-2006.

From the numbers, I have broken down the results into the fields that I consider to be directly related to the STEM goals, and from my calculations there were less than a quarter of a million graduates in those fields in 2005-2006, or roughly one-sixth of all graduates from bachelor's degree granting programs.

By far the largest category was business degrees, granted to more than 318,000 students in that time period. That's more than for all STEM fields combined, and could possibly be attributed to people's desire for money or to get ahead in the world. Obviously business is a clearer path than science for financial gain.

But then how do you explain the fact that the second largest category is Social Sciences and History, with 161,485 graduates? And the third highest is Education, with 107,238. You'll never convince me that people are going into those fields for the money. Or the roughly 100,000 people that majored in English Language and Literature/Letters or Liberal Arts, General Studies, and Humanities.

So if it's not for the money, then why are American students going into fields other than science, technology, engineering, and math? I think there are several problems, but the biggest one is one that is endemic to our society. Most Americans want the easy path, and STEM fields are hard. There's no glamour, no glory, no high profile recognition or—as pointed out repeatedly—no massive paychecks. We haven't done enough to entice people to pursue these fields. It's cultural.

Want proof? The numbers are broken down by ethnic groups, and they're pretty telling. Here are the percentages for various ethnic groups in terms of what percentage of graduates in that ethnic group are graduating with degrees in STEM fields:
  • Whites - 15.00%
  • Blacks - 13.02%
  • Hispanices - 13.28%
  • Asians - 27.96%
  • Native Americans - 14.05%

There is obviously a cultural bias in Asian cultures toward STEM fields that we lack in American culture. You want something else that's telling? There are also numbers for non-resident aliens—students from outside the U.S. who are here just to get their education and then, generally, go home. 25.72% of them are in STEM fields, and more than a third are attending our business schools.

And right now, we're letting them get these degrees that our own citizens apparently have little interest in pursuing, and then we let them go back to their own countries to invent things, start businesses, and grow their local economies. Now, I'm all for growing economies around the world... a rising tide lifts all boats, after all. But the reason the business groups were pushing for increased enrollment and graduation in STEM fields was to keep America competitive in the future. If all of the new ideas and new tech are coming from other countries, then the U.S. may lose one of the few economic strengths we currently have.

One final point I feel that I need to make. In some fields—especially computer technology—college degrees don't mean as much as people, including this coalition of business groups, might think. I know a lot of people who work in Information Technology; I've been in the field for thirteen years myself. And many of those people don't have their degrees in a computer-related field. Heck, I don't have my degree at all (I know, sixteen years of college and 160 credit hours, I should have my MBA or Ph.D. by now), and neither do several of the other people I know. Some have degrees in English literature or psychology. One has a degree in math and two in electrical engineering. One programmer even has his degree in music.

At the same time, I know a woman with a degree in computer and electrical engineering from a prestigious school who currently, I believe, works the phone banks for a policital organization. My point is that just counting degrees granted does not accurately predict how many people are going to be working in what fields. And you might be surprised with the amount of creativity, ingenuity, and industriousness that Americans will continue to display in the future.

But more people studying STEM fields would certainly help.


Jeff said...

Thank you. I think you are right on track with this one.

Matt Metcalf said...

Thanks, Jeff. Now if I can just figure out how to get my son to major in one of these fields, instead of going into music, which is his current plan....