About All Those STEM Dropouts…

science_lab_students.jpgThe New York Times proclaimed recently that science educators and others are vitally concerned that high dropout rates of students studying math, science, and engineering (the “STEM” disciplines) will imperil our nation’s technological leadership. There is a shortage of people in these fields, it is argued, and efforts to increase numbers are thwarted by dropout rates that run from 40 to as high as 60 percent (for those originally pre-med majors).

I want to make two points. First, the high dropout rates are not only far from surprising; indeed, they should be expected, and we should rejoice that someone in higher education is trying to maintain standards of academic excellence. Second, for well over half of a century, STEM advocates have cried “shortages of key personnel” and “crisis” when none really existed, showing a lamentable lack of scientific objectivity and intellectual honesty in the process. I fear this may be happening again.

To the first point, it is extremely costly in terms of time and effort to complete a degree in the STEM disciplines. The law of demand is at work—people gravitate to the low cost disciplines, where “costs” here refer less to tuition fees and more to the psychological costs associated with academic study. For starters, engineering and physics courses are difficult—they take a lot of thinking, a lot of time to master concepts, occasionally a good bit of frustration, etc. No one (at least in my acquaintanceship in more than 50 years in higher education) has ever said that about courses given by, say, colleges of education.

Moreover, the typical student in an education course at my university earns an “A-“ in the class, with grades below “B” virtually unknown. In most of the social sciences, humanities and in vocational fields like business and communications, a “B” is a typical grade. Looking at web sites reporting grades (such as Campus Buddy and myedu) shows this is fairly typical nation-wide. By contrast, the typical physics or math grade might be a “B-“.

National survey data (e.g., the Bureau of Labor Time Use Survey) show that typical students spend fewer than 30 hours weekly on academics. That does not cut it in engineering or many of the hard sciences. Students can study political science and related courses for 28 hours a week and get “B” or “B+” grades, or toil for maybe 45 or 50 hours a week in tough engineering courses to get the same or even lower grades—maybe a “B-“.

The American Association of Universities, the DuPont Circle organization that purports to represent the nation’s top research universities, is, the Times article suggests, wringing its hands. One idea is to promote more project-based, team-type learning, an approach long fashionable in business schools. The limited research I have seen suggests this approach may lead to declining comprehension of students of key concepts (see for, example, some of the results reported by scholars Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book, Academically Adrift), but enrollments are enrollments, so standards be damned.

This brings me to my second point. Ever since I entered college two score and 13 years ago, I have heard about shortages in what are now termed the STEM disciplines and how this imperils American economic growth and/or national security.  About the time of Sputnik (1957), Nobel prize winning economist George Stigler and David Blank wrote a monograph for the National Bureau of Economic Research on The Demand and Supply of Scientific Personnel that dared to say that, based on wage data, there was no shortage of scientific personnel. The Princeton University Press on the urging of an engineering professor demanded the offending statement be removed, and Stigler and Blank refused, forcing them to produce the book elsewhere (see Stigler’s Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist, pp.172-73 for more details). By the way, the “shortage” of the 1950s did not keep America from continuing to achieve economic and scientific preeminence (ever hear of immigration?) Using a similar approach, my reading of the data today is that the alleged shortage is, at the minimum, highly exaggerated.

What this means to the student is that, while some STEM degrees are in pretty high demand (e.g., in some areas of engineering), it is not universally true that getting a degree in those disciplines assures a graduate a good job. Perhaps the realization of that in the midst of pursuing a difficult degree leads many students to quite rationally switch majors.

Moreover, federal policies could be adding to the problem. Some federal financial aid programs are targeted for students in the STEM disciplines—politicians and bureaucrats have decreed that it is really good to be a botany major but not so good to be a major in, say, accounting (even though the market values for accounting majors are more than botany ones, according to research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce). So some students may be lured by financial enticements to pursue majors that really they have neither the interest nor the aptitude to pursue—and are not all that especially valuable to society based on the demand and supply conditions in the labor markets.

Still think we need to solve the high STEM problem? A partial solution might be to make STEM majors more enticing by ending grade inflation in non-STEM disciplines by requiring students to work harder for any given grade—reducing the disadvantage from majoring in the sciences. Second, remove the special lures that entice some students to inappropriately pursue these disciplines in the first place. That, of course, is not what the folks at the National Academies and some of the other higher education groups want to hear. But it would be good for the nation by increasing academic standards and, I suspect, reducing expensive student attrition amongst students in the STEM disciplines.

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

5 thoughts on “About All Those STEM Dropouts…

  1. At Western Washington University the modal grade is an A, 26% of all letter grades. 75% of students get a B- or better. Grades in Math, Science and Economics are substantially lower.

  2. Once again Prof. Vedder provides a little honesty to the situation.
    More examples of overstating the need for STEM degreed persons can be seen in the work done by the Young Scientists Network (YSN) which operated in the early 1990s. The dire shortage of engineers and scientists was referred to as “The Myth,” and many examples of it being propagated were captured by the YSN. At that time reality was that many receiving PhDs in those fields were left taking low-paying post-doctoral fellowships upon graduation.
    Working your way through college while in a STEM field is difficult. Instead of taking away scholarships for such people, it might be better if businesses sponsored more of them, but targeted the fields they wanted. That means donations don’t go to some general pool where a university administrator or academician decides that they can reward the under-represented minority du jour who’s majoring in botany.
    I’d also be in favor of people checking boxes on their state tax forms, selecting which state universities’ department(s) receive those tax dollars.

  3. This generalizes: Dropping out is good, because a dropout has made an error, and the error can be corrected. The important point is to make changing majors, or even completely dropping out, cheap. The cost of failure must be kept low.
    If you are going to get divorced, e.g., do it early. 🙂 Education is no different!

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