(Re)Inspecting the STEM Pipeline

By Sean Cavanagh — November 06, 2009 3 min read
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Last week I wrote about a study that drew some intriguing conclusions about the state of the “pipeline” of students entering math and science studies and fields. The analysis, by Hal Salzman of Rutgers University and Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University, found that the flow of students from K-12 schools to the workforce appears to be quite strong, contrary to the assertions of many policymakers today.

To the extent that students are leaving the pipeline, the authors found, they tend to be high-achieving students. In other words, young people don’t seem to be fleeing those fields because of lack of ability, but because of other factors—such as that they don’t find those jobs attractive for whatever reason.

Now, an organization that represents businesses, research universities, and foundations, who have a major interest in maintaining the “STEM” pipeline, is offering a critique of the study’s methodology and conclusions. The Business-Higher Education Forum, in a paper made available to its members, says the loss of high-performing students in STEM was more likely explained by the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000—not by college or businesses not doing enough to keep them.

“Students rationally voted with their feet as jobs vanished from an imploding sector of the economy,” the BHEF says. Recent data, they say, shows an upswing of interest in engineering and computer science studies in recent years.

The BHEF, in examining the data in the Salzman/Lowell study, also asserts that it judges STEM in isolation, and people in other studies/careers tend to abandon those interests at similar rates. But a broader issue the study doesn’t address, says BHEF Executive Director Brian Fitzgerald, is that STEM-related talents, particularly in technology, are increasingly demanded by businesses that, strictly speaking, have not been considered “STEM"-oriented in the past. He cites the growing need for STEM talent in the insurance industry, as one example. The business reps the BHEF works with talk often about the shift away from a manufacturing economy, and how important science- and math-related skills are becoming in their workplaces. The study doesn’t account for that, he says.

“Across fields, more will be demanded,” Fitzgerald told me. “Every major corporate sector is undergoing a shift, with technology at its core.”

I contacted Salzman, who responded to BHEF’s points. He acknowledges that the dot-com bust may have affected students’ career choices, but says that ultimately proves the study’s point: that STEM choices are market-driven. “I’m not sure [the pipeline is] ‘broken,’ if students choose to leave a field that is in decline,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Salzman also says that, contrary to the BHEF’s critique, the authors are not saying that top-achieving students avoiding STEM simply because companies aren’t making those jobs attractive enough. The key point is that students are responding to what they know of job market conditions— and that it’s not a matter of them not being academically gifted enough.

For instance, Salzman, who has studied labor markets extensively, says his research has shown that mid-level and senior engineering workers voice satisfaction with their careers, overall, but are concerned it won’t be a good or stable a job in the future.

“The decline in retention from college to first job might also be due to loss of interest in STEM careers, but alternatively, top STEM majors may be responding to market forces and incentives,” Salzman said by e-mail. “We tried to be very clear that there are number of possible explanations, and that the key point is that enrollments are sensitive to market conditions. This, then, would be entirely consistent with the [BHEF’s point about dot-coms]. ... In fact, in terms of IT, we make that very case in a couple of earlier papers.”

He also says when he and Lowell have written on this topic in the past on a similar theme, they’ve asked critics to provide data backing up the claim that demand for STEM jobs outstrips the supply of qualified talent. No such data has emerged, he said.

I’ll invite readers to offer their own analysis of this debate, which—no matter what you come down—surely reflects one of the most important education-meets-labor market questions out there today.

Update: More on students having slipped out of the STEM pipeline, possibly on their way to Wall Street, from Lowell and Salzman, in a new EdWeek commentary.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.