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.”

To quote Barbie: Engineering is hard

My daughter, an American Studies major, was talking with her lawyer friends. They all decided they’d raise their children to be engineers. “No sociology majors!” she says. “No English majors! No American Studies!”  Engineering graduates have it made, the lawyers decided. (They’re assuming their children will earn engineering degrees at top universities.)

But attrition is high for college students who plan on science, technology, engineering and math majors, writes the New York Times. In middle and high school, kids decide that science is fun. In college, “the excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality of what David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, calls ‘the math-science death march.’ Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out.”

Some 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors switch or quit. That rises to 60 percent when pre-meds are counted, twice the  attrition rate of all other majors.

While some students lack the math skills or the work ethic, the attrition rate is high at super-selective schools, says UCLA Education Professor Mitchell Chang.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

Grading is tougher in science and math classes than in the humanities or social sciences, discouraging some students.

Others find the coursework abstract.

Some engineering programs are breaking up large lecture classes, giving students more design opportunities and pushing social engagement.

(Notre Dame) students now do four projects. They build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.

“They learn how to work with their hands, how to program the robot and how to work with design constraints,” (Dean of Engineering Peter Kilpatrick) says. But he also says it’s inevitable that students will be lost. Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.

In other words, it’s hard.

President Obama wants U.S. universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year. Not going to happen, say engineering professors.