Fearing B’s, women reject STEM majors

Claudia Goldin/Harvard University - This chart shows the percentage of male and female students who received a given grade in introductory economics course who then later majored in economics. 

Women should stop trying to be straight-A students, choose tougher, math-centric majors and earn more later, writes Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post.

“The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s,” she writes. Women may be leaving these fields because they’re afraid of getting B’s, two new studies suggest.

Most new college graduates are female, but only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics go to women. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, analyzed how Econ 101 grades affected the chance a student would major in the subject.

She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science.

Duke Professor Peter Arcidiacono is finding similar trends in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women enter college just as prepared as men in math and science, but few choose a STEM major (not counting biology) and even fewer complete a degree.

Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.

Women “want something where the professor will pat them on the back and say ‘You’re doing so well!’,” speculates Goldin. Men have their “eyes on the prize.”

High school dropout wins Nobel Prize

Alvin Roth, who just won the Nobel Prize for Economics, a high school dropout. Finding his Queens high school boring, he quit in his junior year but managed to get into Columbia, earn an engineering degree and go on to earn a doctorate in operations research at Stanford.

His work has been used to match students to their schools of choice and match medical school graduates to residencies.

Of course, dropping out of high school is one of those don’t-try-this-at-home ideas.

College majors of the top 1%

The undergraduate majors that provide the best chance of reaching the top 1 percent in earnings are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and biology, according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. That suggests many high earners are doctors. The high-earning econ majors probably started businesses.

Some 5.9 percent of art history majors end up in the top 1 percent, beating out chemistry and finance. Perhaps art history majors are more likely to start out wealthy.

Qualifying for a good job is a very important reason for going to college, according to 85.9 percent of U.S. freshmen in an annual UCLA survey.  That’s up sharply since the recession began, edging out “to learn more about things that interest me.”

It's like they got PhDs…

Apparently the market’s a little tight for teachers:

In the month since Pelham Memorial High School in Westchester County advertised seven teaching jobs, it has been flooded with 3,010 applications from candidates as far away as California. The Port Washington District on Long Island is sorting through 3,620 applications for eight positions — the largest pool the superintendent has seen in his 41-year career.

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KIPP, another charter school network with 82 schools nationwide, has received 745 applications since January at its seven schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, compared with 385 last year.

At the University of Pennsylvania, most of the 90 aspiring teachers who graduated last weekend are jobless. Many had counted on offers from the Philadelphia public schools but had their interviews canceled this month after the district announced a hiring freeze.

“We’re trying to encourage everyone to hold on,” said Kathy Schultz, an education professor at Penn. “But that’s very difficult because students have taken out loans and want to be assured of a job.”

There’s something outrightly pernicious, even a little disgusting, about the very existence of the phrase “assured of a job.”  Assured by whom, exactly?  And why?  May those words never pass my lips except in mockery.

Welcome to the real world, would-be teachers.  You have to be smarter, brighter, straighter…. better than the next guy if you want to get ahead.  On the bright side: this helps address one contentious issue, though.  Who needs merit pay when you have 3000+ applicants for seven jobs?

If not college, then what?

Apropos of the subliminal theme for the last few weeks, I thought I’d drop a link to an interesting NY Times story on the possibilities of skipping college.  We should start with a concise statement of the problem facing parents and students:

WHAT’S the key to success in the United States?

Short of becoming a reality TV star, the answer is rote and, some would argue, rather knee-jerk: Earn a college degree.

The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators. But there’s an underside to that conventional wisdom. Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education.

As has been remarked many times by both posters and commenters on this site and others, the problem arises from a classic causation-correlation problem.  Merely because many, or perhaps even most, successful people go to college does not mean that going to college will make you successful.  At long last, I think people are actually starting to wake up to this fact.

A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.

Whether everyone in college needs to be there is not a new question; the subject has been hashed out in books and dissertations for years. But the economic crisis has sharpened that focus, as financially struggling states cut aid to higher education.

So.  Trade schools.  Not a bad idea at all.  But of course, every rose has its thorn…

Still, by urging that some students be directed away from four-year colleges, academics like Professor Lerman are touching a third rail of the education system. At the very least, they could be accused of lowering expectations for some students. Some critics go further, suggesting that the approach amounts to educational redlining, since many of the students who drop out of college are black or non-white Hispanics.

Peggy Williams, a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City with a student body that is mostly black or Hispanic, understands the argument for erring on the side of pushing more students toward college.

“If we’re telling kids, ‘You can’t cut the mustard, you shouldn’t go to college or university,’ then we’re shortchanging them from experiencing an environment in which they might grow,” she said.

So there’s the problem, set out in all of its simple glory.  Do we want false positives, or false negatives?  How fine a sieve?  The answer seems important, because college seems important.  It may actually be a matter of, well, if not life and death, then as the first sentence of the article intimates, at least of success or failure.  After all, the truth is there to see:

There is another rejoinder to the case against college: People with college and graduate degrees generally earn more than those without them, and face lower risks of unemployment, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But doesn’t that just bring us back to the causation-correlation problem?  Perhaps the point of college shouldn’t be to succeed.  I’m reminded of  John Stuart Mill:

The proper function of a University in national education is tolerably well understood.  At least there is a tolerably general agreement about what a University is not.  It is not a place of professional education.  Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood.  Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.

* * * *

Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers — who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details.  And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included.  Education makes a man a more intelligent shoe-maker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses.

I somehow doubt that there is today such a tolerable general agreement.

The bitter graduate

Via Mark Bauerlein over at CoHE’s Brainstorm blog, we are treated to a rant by an unemployed Master’s student in Seattle, directed to the institution that took the student’s money and gave him a degree in return.  A tease:

Really, that’s about all you did for us — gave us a lecture hall, gave us an arrogant bastard to listen to, and gave us a room full of computers we could use sometimes, and you gave us a degree that employers look at and say “This guy knows how to write reports. Amusing.” And I will be paying for this privilege until I am 51 years old.

Something is going to be changing in higher education soon.   Many have talked about a bubble bursting.  Between bubbles, the death of tenure and the rise of adjunctification, and overall economic decline… well, anyone who thinks they know what the university will look like in 15 years is probably fooling themselves.

Teaching online from 'Mortaritaville'

Where there’s a will — and a laptop — there’s a way to teach economics in North Dakota while serving in Iraq.  Cheryl J. Wachenheim, an associate professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State, is also a captain in the Minnesota Army National guard.  When she was deployed last year as a medical logistics officer to a base known as Mortaritaville, she continued teaching courses in micro- and macroeconomics.

Using her personal laptop to run the courses, Ms. Wachenheim posted discussion questions and assignments using the Blackboard course-management system, and even video lectures using the audio and video software Wimba.

. . . To get Internet access, she and nine other soldiers on her base in Iraq chipped in for a satellite dish and dug holes in the sand all over the base so they could run wires underground and into each of their trailers.

She used the base’s shortage of Diet Mountain Dew to teach students about supply and demand.

College degrees that lead to a job

The most marketable college degrees of 2009 are nursing, computer/information science, engineering, economics and education, says MSN Encarta.

The least marketable degrees start with print journalism and include film studies, advertising, real estate and architecture.