Lack of interest and aptitude keeps students out of STEM majors

If ever there was a stairway to success in this economy, it appears to be a college degree in math, science or technology. Unfortunately, the majority of American high-school students just aren’t interested in taking it.

A study released this week by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that recent graduates in computer science, mathematics and engineering all had unemployment rates below 9 percent (with the rates dropping below 6 percent among those who had some experience.) Conversely, the rates for graduates in architecture and the arts were 13.9 and 11.1 percent, respectively.

Previously, research from the same Georgetown center found that, “Over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who have majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology.”

What’s more, technology start-ups consistently bemoan the inavailability of good programmers, who are increasingly snapped up by larger companies for astronomical salaries.

Despite all of this evidence, students majoring in science, math, engineering and technology (commonly categorized under the term STEM) make up only 16 percent of all college graduates, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. So why are so many students ignoring the call of the prosperous world of math and science?

Mainly, they aren’t good enough at math in high school, and they aren’t interested in STEM as a result. According to a study of high school students performed by the Business-Higher Education Forum in December, only 17 percent of high school seniors were both proficient in math and interested in the STEM fields. (Fourteen percent more were not proficient in math but still interested in STEM). In fact, many students — 27 percent — weren’t interested in math or science degrees even if they were math proficient. The results led the studies’ authors to conclude: “Current interest in STEM fields and proficiency in math are not sufficient to meet U.S. workforce demand.”


Only 17 percent of 12th graders are both math proficient and interested in the STEM fields. (Business-Higher Education Forum)

Math proficiency, as quantified by SAT scores and high school grades, is a strong predictor of interest in STEM majors, as is the student’s own perceived mathematical abilities, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Engineering Education.

The study goes on to characterize the mindset of the typical STEM and non-STEM student:

Students interested in STEM are primarily motivated by academic and career achievement, while “the academic focus for non-STEM students concerns college as a general life experience and suggest prior gaps in acquisition of critical academic skills.”

But it’s not just a high-school issue. A November New York Times story quoted retired research professor David Goldberg as calling the coursework STEM majors undertake a “math-science death march” because of its difficulty. The tough classes required and lower grades students receive cause many to simply give up — or to get “pulled away” by the higher average grades of the humanities.

It’s possible that would-be engineers simply want to have an easier time in college, even if it means a harder time getting a job afterward.

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