Smart students reject STEM majors

Top-performing students are less likely to choose science, technology, engineering and math majors in college.  From Education Week:

For instance, from the 1970s through the 1990s, the percent of the top-performing high school graduates who chose college STEM majors rose. But from the 1990s through the cohort between 2000 and 2005, the proportion of top-tier students choosing STEM plunged, from 29 percent to 14 percent, though their overall representation in STEM remains larger than lower-performing students, overall.

. . . (Authors) speculate that top-tier students may regard non-STEM careers — in health care, business, and the law — as higher-paying, more prestigious, or more stable.

I wonder if we’ll see more very bright students go into engineering and science now that other alternatives don’t look quite so glittering.

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  1. The authors of the study also venture another claim. They write, “This analysis does strongly suggest that students are not leaving STEM pathways because of lack of preparation or ability. Instead, it does suggest that we turn our attention to factors other than educational preparation or student ability in this compositional shift to lower-performing students in the STEM pipeline.”

    They strongly suggest that factors beyond schools will have a strong impact on our economic fate. Schools are critical economic engines–but we have to work on the demand side as well.

    Jobs in engineering and science aren’t particularly easy to come by these days either. I have two close friends who are engineers–both of them former academic superstars. Both are looking for work.

  2. Devilbunny says:

    1. Companies that once demanded that management consist of engineers who could also manage people are much less likely to do so. Engineers start climbing the management ladder much later than non-engineers, and as a result don’t make it as high. Engineers are also treated as expendable talent and tossed out of jobs in their 40s and 50s. Why sign on for that if you have better alternatives?

    2. Contra the article, going to medical school still is mostly done by people with STEM degrees – biology and chemistry are the perennial favorites. But medicine is becoming a much less desirable field as a steady drumbeat calls for less autonomy and lower pay.

    Prestige is nice, but it’s the paycheck that wins. Why kill yourself earning an engineering degree just to get paid less than a business major and have worse career prospects? After all, if you have the business background, you can just hire the talent…

  3. You’d think Education Week could distinguish between “percent” and “percentage”…

  4. One of the biggest drivers IMHO is totally overlooked in the Ed Week article: grade inflation. In the STEM classes I took in college, the median grade was set to a C+ or even a C. In the social science & humanities classes I took, the median grade was set to a B or even B+. Students who aspire to graduate school outside of STEM fields are going to gravitate toward the majors where they are more likely to achieve a higher GPA.

    I was pre-med for most of my college years and debated between biology & psychology for my major. One of the biggest reasons why I chose the latter was the much more lenient grading. I knew that I could get a much higher GPA for much less work majoring in psych than in bio. I needed the easy A’s to help offset the work-my-tail-off B’s in my science courses.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Engineering degrees are probably the most difficult/rigorous undergraduate degrees to get. Engineers get “specialized” and then are more vulnerable to being out of a career by their 40’s. Large companies “import” engineers from India, etc. or even outsource their engineering work to subsidiaries in such countries.

  6. Med schools have been seeing more non-STEM-major applicants for decades, ever since such a major stopped being required. I have no proof, although it may be available, but I suspect that it coincided with the influx of women into med school. In addition, once out of med school, women tend to choose different fields and different types of jobs within them. They are more likely to choose primary care or medical specialties than surgery and are more likely to trade stable/fewer hours for less pay and they are less likely to be in private practice, as opposed to being employees of HMOs or hospitals/clinics. Their choices have necessarily influenced practice opportunities,working conditions and income for all. I have been in and around the medical field for almost 3 decades and such have been my observations and such has been the input from many physicians with experience in all kinds of practices.

    My kids graduated from very affluent, highly-ranked high schools and very few of their honors/AP track contemporaries had any interest in medicine. The business field was a much bigger draw for those kids, with some of the real math types heading to STEM fields. Some of those have switched (post graduation) into the finance area, which loves the math/analytical skills.

  7. superdestroyer says:

    The whites kids are avoiding STEM because the fields are dominated by Asians who want to have little to do with whites. The whites kids know that a class filled with Chinese and Korea students will be hard, the students will be hyper-driven, and that the Asians will not waste their time in Frats or studying abroad for a year.

    The rich white kids would rather study economics or international relations. Of course, most of the white kids will end up in sales while the Asians end up as physicians, quants, or running businesses.

  8. Engineering degrees are hard work. Who wants a difficult college career these days? These days, I think the kids just want their college ticket punched so they can get a lucrative job. That motivation isn’t sufficient for an engineering degree, so it gets passed by.

    Back in the late 1970s when I got my degree, none of us expected to get rich. We knew engineering wasn’t about the big bucks (my first engineering job, with McDonnell Douglas, paid $17,900 a year). We just thought engineering was cool and interesting – who wouldn’t want to design airplanes or electronic gizmos?

    I don’t think that kind of thinking is around any more.

  9. My parents warned me of the cyclical nature of employment for engineers. Add to that the recent tendency of American businesses to ship production overseas, and who would choose to study engineering?


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