Report: Top students spurning STEM fields

Research suggests top STEM students opt for non-STEM fields.

For years, educators have heard dire warnings about a supposed decline in the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates from U.S. colleges and universities, and the effect this could have on the nation’s global competitiveness. Now, a new study suggests the problem might be different in nature than originally assumed.

The number of STEM graduates from U.S. schools continues to exceed the number of hires in these fields each year, the report says. Yet, researchers found the number of highest performing students moving on to STEM fields after graduation is declining.

The report, “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline,” explores the attrition rate of STEM students from high school to a career path, as well as changes in this attrition rate and changes in the quality of students who follow the STEM path.

Three points along the STEM pipeline are examined: the transitions from high school to a STEM degree in college (five years after high school), from the completion of a STEM degree to a first job (three years after college), and from the completion of a STEM degree to mid-career STEM employment (10 years after college completion).

“Overall, we don’t see huge changes in supply, and that’s the major headline,” said Hal Salzman, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and the report’s co-author. “The assumptions about dramatic change aren’t there, and this is quite surprising to us.”

Differences among various STEM fields do exist, but by the numbers, the supply of STEM-related workers has remained quite strong, he added.

Findings indicate that retention along the STEM pipeline remained strong, and even increased, from the 1970s to the late 1990s. The overall trend of increasingly strong STEM retention rates, however, is accompanied by simultaneous and sometimes sharp declines in retention among the highest performing students in the 1990s.

The study found that STEM retention rates at the three transition points from the 1970s to the late 1990s and the beginning part of this decade remained relatively unchanged from high school to college, increased from college to a first job, and increased from college to the mid-career point.

The highest STEM performers’ retention rate increased from high school to college, but then decreased steeply thereafter. Their retention rate was no different from that of average performers between college and the first job, but then decreased “in absolute terms, as well as relative to the average trend,” from college to mid-career jobs.

The report notes that the 1990s “marked a turning point in longer-term trends for the best students either in high school or college.” Students who achieved top scores on standardized tests and who had the highest GPAs seemed to drop out of the STEM pipeline “at a substantial rate,” with the decline appearing to have come on suddenly in the mid- to late-1990s.

Over the past decade, U.S. colleges and universities graduated roughly three times more scientists and engineers than were employed in the growing science and engineering workforce, said Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at Georgetown University and the study’s co-author.

“At the same time, more of the very best students are attracted to non-science occupations, such as finance. Even so, there is no evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs,” he added.

Lowell and Salzman examined the percentage of students who stayed in the STEM pipeline, the percent of graduates who secured STEM jobs, and the “best and brightest” performing STEM students over 30 years.

Lowell said longitudinal data suggest a decline in first job holding among U.S. STEM graduates in the late 1990s during an employment boom, which could mean that STEM workers other than U.S. students made up part of the STEM workforce.

Although data gathered in preparation for the report cannot fully explain the loss of high-performing students from the STEM pipeline, the evidence does suggest that students are not leaving the STEM pathway owing to a lack of preparation or ability–and it indicates there might be factors other than educational preparation or student ability.

“This research is part of a larger study project that tries to assess commonly heard claims,” Lowell said, including claims that U.S. students are losing interest in STEM fields, students are not prepared for STEM careers, and the U.S. has a shortage of STEM workers.

Although the overall STEM supply seems stable, the report theorizes that the decline in retention of top STEM performers might indicate that top high school graduates are no longer interested in STEM fields or that a future in a STEM-related career is not attractive for some reason.

The decline could be the result of a loss of interest, the report says, or it might be that STEM fields are responding to market forces and incentives. Alternatively, students who earned STEM degrees might opt for non-STEM fields owing to larger salaries or other issues.


“Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline”

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