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STEM Defection Seen to Occur After High School

By Sean Cavanagh — October 28, 2009 4 min read
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Despite popular opinion, the flow of qualified math and science students through the American education pipeline is strong—except among high-achievers, who appear to be defecting to other college majors and fields.

That is the provocative conclusion of a study, released today, which disputes the idea that students are leaving the mathematics and science fields because they lack preparation or ability.

A chorus of elected officials and policymakers have suggested that U.S. schools are not producing students with the talent necessary to make it academically or professionally in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The new study calls that assumption into question. The authors find that overall retention in STEM majors and careers remained robust among three generations of students they studied from the 1970s through the past decade, with the exception of those in the top-tier category.

That finding is consistent with the past research of the study’s lead authors, B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Harold Salzman of Rutgers University, who concluded that schools produce a sufficient amount of STEM talent, but that they don’t last in graduate studies and the workforce.

The real break in the pipeline, it turns out, is among the top high school and postsecondary students, as measured by ACT and SAT scores and college grade point averages, who choose other studies and occupations, a trend that appears to have begun in the 1990s, the authors conclude. Lack of STEM ability, they say, is not what is driving many students away.

For instance, from the 1970s through the 1990s, the percent of the top-performing high school graduates who chose college STEM majors rose. But from the 1990s through the cohort between 2000 and 2005, the proportion of top-tier students choosing STEM plunged, from 29 percent to 14 percent, though their overall representation in STEM remains larger than lower-performing students, overall.

“This may indicate that the top high school graduates are no longer interested in STEM,” the authors write, “but it might also indicate that a future in a STEM job is not attractive for some reason.”

What factors could be turning qualified students away from science and math fields? While the authors say their data cannot answer that question definitively, they speculate that top-tier students may regard non-STEM careers—in health care, business, and the law—as higher-paying, more prestigious, or more stable. “There are numerous accounts of financial firms hiring top-performing STEM graduates at much higher salaries than those offered by STEM employers,” they speculate.

Raw Talent

Another possibility, the authors acknowledge, is that high-achieving students may be selecting fields—in information technology or management, for example—that may require some math and science knowledge but that the study doesn’t categorize as STEM. The information technology and STEM boom of the 1990s, they note, may have spawned those jobs.

In one sense, the findings should be encouraging to policymakers, Mr. Salzman said.

“The raw talent supply from high schools and college does appear to be there,” he said, which means those students can “potentially be induced back into the STEM field.”

The authors of the report, titled “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students Through the Science and Engineering Pipeline,” examine various points of transition in students’ educational and career choices: completing high school, finishing college, and on-the-job persistence. They break down the areas of study and careers as STEM or non-STEM. The authors’ analysis culls from a number of longitudinal data sets from the U.S. departments of Labor and Education, dating from the 1970s through today.

The study was financed by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy that underwrites research in STEM and other areas.

In 2007, Mr. Lowell, the director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, in Washington, and Mr. Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., produced a study concluding that U.S. schools were producing an ample supply of qualified students in STEM, notwithstanding others’ assertions. The problem, they concluded, is that graduate schools and science and engineering companies were failing to persuade those students to stay in such fields.

While the study’s conclusions about the math and science pipeline might seem surprising, they are in some ways consistent with what many advocates are saying, said James Brown, the co-chairman of the STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of business, technology, and education groups that promotes the study of those subjects.

“If the top students are not choosing STEM fields, that really is a competitiveness issue” for the United States, Mr. Brown said.

Questions about whether the education system is producing “too many or too few” qualified STEM students are important, he added, but it’s also essential that policymakers look at future labor needs, which Mr. Brown said could grow more acute in the years to come.

“The bow wave of the baby boom generation is starting to hit,” Mr. Brown said. Luring top students into STEM professions could prove essential to future U.S. job creation, he said. “There’s a big question of where the next generation of technological advances is going to come from.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2009 edition of Education Week

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