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The Leaky STEM Pipeline Can’t Be Patched with Higher Wages

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Even with the economic recovery, recent graduates have it rough. Unemployment among young people remains high and wages remain depressed. Frequently, graduates accept low-wage positions that do not utilize their degrees.

However, one group of recent graduates—those in STEM fields—has it easier than their peers. For these graduates with degrees in fields such as computer science and engineering, high-paying jobs are plentiful. Eighty-one percent of STEM grads hold jobs closely related to their degrees, compared to 72.5 percent among all graduates. Median starting salaries for computer science and engineering are estimated at around $67,300 and $64,400 respectively, 80 percent higher than starting salaries for humanities and liberal arts majors. Moreover, most sectors of today’s economy rely on STEM skills, so graduates have a plethora of career paths to choose from. In addition, compensation is high because companies face an acute shortage of qualified STEM workers.

Economics 101 tells us that the laws of supply and demand should fix this problem as high wages motivate more students to pursue computer and engineering degrees. Instead, exactly the opposite has occurred. We currently have fewer computer science graduates than we did 10 years ago, and 48.3 percent of students who start a STEM degree never finish it. Meanwhile, wages in IT and engineering keep growing.

So why don’t more students pursue and complete highly lucrative STEM degrees? Are wages not high enough? Are only a select number of students capable of obtaining a STEM degree? Are students simply not interested in STEM fields?

No, no, and no. Computer science and engineering fields already have the highest return on investment of any major. Moreover, wages have been steadily increasing, suggesting that the shortage is getting worse. Students who drop out of STEM fields are found to be no less intelligent than those remaining. And STEM fields draw plenty of interest, as evident from the numbers of students who declare STEM majors.

In reality, the leaky pipeline in STEM education is caused by a lack of teachers, available courses, and information about STEM fields.

First, many students don’t know a STEM field is even a possibility for them. Rigorous computer science or engineering courses with qualified teachers aren’t offered at most high schools. Many students arrive at college without ever being properly introduced to STEM subjects and assume that engineering or computer fields are reserved for math prodigies or kids who have been coding since they were eight years old.

Second, colleges have trouble adjusting with changing volumes of majors. Rather than expanding their offerings in STEM, schools introduce curricular gate measures like weed-out classes that eliminate able and interested students and instead push them into majors like psychology and anthropology. This prevents schools from having to reshuffle faculty. Universities have little incentive to change their offerings to match the interests of their students, locking in pre-determined distributions of majors throughout.

Even when colleges elect to offer more courses or more seats in a lecture, faculty hiring often has lagged behind. Students receive less and less individual attention as the student-to-faculty ratio widens, discouraging students and magnifying the advantage of students who were lucky enough to be exposed to computer science or engineering before college.

Now, more than ever, these frictions and barriers for aspiring STEM workers, especially in technology fields, are apparent and damaging. Interest in computer science, for example, is currently on a cyclical upswing. If universities fail to expand their offerings in the field, the current momentum behind computer science will be squandered.

We need to fix avenues by which we educate STEM workers and stop assuming that wages will match supply and demand in a timely manner. We need to reform our education system to mitigate America’s STEM worker shortage.

 

 

Photo credit: John Walker, Flickr

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About the author

Adams Nager is an economic policy analyst at ITIF. He researches and writes on innovation economics, manufacturing policy, and the importance of STEM education and high-skilled immigration. Nager holds an M.A. in political economy and public policy and a B.A. in economics, both from Washington University in St. Louis.