March 26, 2024
Math and College Admissions

Where Have All the STEM Grads Gone?

Pamela Burdman
Where Have All the STEM Grads Gone?

Bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors are surging, growing from 18 percent of all degrees in 2015-16 to 21 percent in 2021-22. 

The trend is also clear at individual institutions. The University of California, for example, reports that STEM enrollment grew from 41 percent to 44 percent between 2012 and 2022. The most rapid growth was in engineering and computer science, where the number enrolled doubled over the 10-year period. At campuses including UC San Diego and UC Davis, more than half of students are pursuing STEM majors. 

These patterns align with the accepted narrative about the importance of preparing students to enter STEM careers. But there’s a problem, as documented in a new book by UC San Diego sociologist John Skrentny: Using publicly available data, Skrentny shows that “a paltry 28 percent of STEM grads are working in … supposedly in-demand, highly paid, and important STEM jobs,” to quote his recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times

Such facts raise serious questions about the STEM education enterprise—including the emphasis on calculus, considered a launchpad for STEM futures, and a tacit requirement for admission to many selective universities.

We already know that access to calculus in high school is inequitable, due to policies such as tracking that begin as early as elementary or middle school, granting some students far more access to STEM-preparatory courses during high school than others.

Even students who manage to enter STEM fields in college do not necessarily complete degrees in those fields, with women and students of color most likely to leave for other majors.

These disturbing trends have been linked to an elitist culture within STEM that uses courses such as calculus to “weed out” students, often emphasizes grading on a curve, and is steeped in biases about who can and cannot succeed. All of these create a survival-of-the-fittest environment on an uneven playing field and serve to ration access to STEM. 

Thus, it’s perplexing to contemplate that the majority of those who survive this culture don’t ultimately enter or stay in STEM careers. Skrentny identifies several reasons: the availability of better-paying careers, the grueling nature of work in many STEM jobs, the constant threat of layoffs, and the misalignment of values between many STEM companies and their employees.

Research has linked the underrepresentation of women and Black students in academic fields to stereotypes of brilliance. Fields in which raw talent is seen as necessary for success—such as math, computer science, and physics—tend to have the lowest gender and racial diversity. 

Perhaps that brilliance expectation extends to the job market as well. As in education, those most likely to exit STEM jobs appear to be women and people of color—groups that are already underrepresented among STEM grads. 

There is much discussion and research about how to make STEM education more inclusive. For example, Hatfield et al. write:

For decades, higher education’s efforts to address STEM disparities have focused on “fixing students,” with interventions such as bridge programs, undergraduate research experiences, and remedial/developmental courses. These approaches are rooted in perceived deficits in student preparation or interest. … These programs have not reduced attrition among underrepresented minority groups. Thus, new approaches are needed, including a critical examination of institutional structures and policies that may inhibit equity.

Skrentny raises new questions: Could the exclusionary culture of many STEM employers also explain the race and gender discrepancies among STEM graduates? In other words, could women and students of color be preemptively eschewing STEM careers based on the knowledge that they may not be treated fairly? And if so, what is the solution (not to mention the implications for math education)?

While there is no definitive answer, one thing is clear. It is time to scrutinize what Skrentny calls “a major disconnect between an education policymaking establishment that is dedicated to ensuring that the U.S. graduates enough STEM majors to satisfy employers and employers who see it as their right to burn and churn right through those STEM graduates, requiring ever more STEM majors to graduate.”

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