Arnold Kling  

One Cause of the STEM Shortfall

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According to Timothy Taylor,


grade inflation in the humanities has been contributing to college students moving away from science, technology, engineering, and math fields, as well as economics, for the last half century.

This comes at the end of an excellent post summarizing recent findings.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
CBBB writes:

There's not really a shortfall in STEM graduates, that's really a myth - there aren't enough STEM jobs out there for all the STEM majors currently graduating (particularly if you only look at STM jobs).

But this article raises a very important point, since many STEM majors won't be able to get STEM jobs they are forced to compete with humanities grads for more generic jobs and they will not be competitive because on average their grades will be lower.

Also I wouldn't put Economics in with STEM, Economics is a pretty easy major.

Shangwen writes:

I started with a degree in the humanities then went into STEM. As someone who is reasonably good but not brilliant at math, and saw many people struggling in both fields (some people find writing an agony or are bored by social complexity), the following also seem problematic:

a. Arts courses reward in-group chatter and the ability to decode and adopt a certain kind of discourse; STEM success is a mix of native ability and hard work;

b. Successful rent-seeking is heavily dependent on discourse manipulation.

c. Rewards for discourse cleverness will support overconfidence and confirmation bias.

Now see the previous post on Systems 1 and 2.

Martin writes:

What I wonder about whether this is different when universities use pass/fail. Is it the higher effort that's discouraging or is it the signaling to potential employers that's driving this?

Foobarista writes:

Martin, it's the need to get into a good graduate school, particularly law and MBA school. If you have a bunch of B's and C's from your STEM undergrad, you're basically toast as far as getting into a "tier 1" law school, particularly when there's plenty of other students with near-perfect grades to choose from. Also, those kids had a much better "college experience" than you did.

nzgsw writes:

A couple of anecdotes (which are not data):

My college roommate decided that chemical engineering wasn't for him after about 5 years in industry. He had a terrible time getting into medical school mainly because of a "low" GPA from one of the top STEM schools in the world. (He destroyed the MCAT.)

I'm currently only a "temporary" employee because the Senior VP dislikes the grade I got in quantum mechanics during my sophomore year, despite a further MSEE, MBA, and industry success, and despite the fact that my current job has nothing to do with quantum mechanics.

English Professor writes:

Taylor mentions the article by Sabot and Wakemann-Linn on grade inflation. I read that shortly after it appeared, and it helped me understand some phenomena about student self-evaluation. At my university, the average grade in an English course is also about 3.33 (a B+). So what does it mean when a student gets a B+ in a course? The letter grade tells him that he is doing very good work--just short of excellence (A or A-). But in fact, he's just doing average. As a result, many students who are poor to mediocre in various areas of the humanities have been led to believe by their grades that they are either good or very good. It is a very powerful form of lying that arose (at least in part) from the misguided goal of building students' self esteem.

Grant Gould writes:

The funny thing is, as an engineer, I can't remember the last time an employer asked about my (relatively mediocre) college GPA, and I've certainly never asked an interviewee such a question -- why waste time on the inevitably long and elaborate explanation of college coursework when you can ask a practical problem-solving question instead? After all, what you as an employer want to know is not whether they scored an 'A' but whether they learned enough in the process to not make an expensive mess of things in practice.

In my experience at least the lack of grade inflation in STEM doesn't much help or hurt once you're a year or two into the job market, provided that you stick with the field. So the major effect seems to be ,as nzgsw noted, to put a penalty on switching out of STEM.

Silas Barta writes:

@nzgsw: Wow, that's pretty scary, that they compare grades from fluff majors on par with chemical engineering. Just goes to show another source of bad incentives today...

lemmy caution writes:

Here is the list of college majors by year:

http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_282.asp?referrer=list

The biggest rise has been for the Business majors.

Lord writes:

There is no STEM shortfall but a surplus as unemployment among them is higher than average for those with bachelor's degrees. The less engineering and manufacturing we do the less we need them.

mike shupp writes:

Oh, come now! For 50 years, politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and economists in the USA have been bemoaning shortages of scientists and engineers. During that period, pay for politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and economists has risen considerably -- much more so than for scientists and engineers. During that period, the federal government has steadily reduced its funding, as a proportion of GNP, for programs employing scientists and engineers. During that period, scientists and engineers have consistently responded that there is no real shortage of personnel in the STEM fields.

For fifty years. One side of this "debate" is clearly raving nuts. Assuming you lawyers, businessmen, politicians and economists are the "sane" side, why on earth do you keep insisting that the American economy needs to employ more engineers and scientists -- who after all are clearly insane?

Why on earth?

Kyle writes:

Gonna have to side with the "What STEM shortfall?" crowd here. Anyone willing to really try and defend that statement?

Shangwen writes:

The issue is maybe not STEM grads (as their most recent degree), but STEM skills. Bear in mind that government--particularly in health, education, and social programs--absorbs huge numbers of people with humanities degrees, largely on the basis that they are assumed to have "critical thinking skills", even though there is no evidence they possess such an advantage. In the govt departments I deal with, frontline "policy or program analysts" are typically people with BAs in sociology, history, social work, etc., who really have nowhere else to go without a serious wage cut. Most of these people produce nothing, but they are lavishly employed.

On the other hand, areas of private sector growth, the growth for STEM skills is high, even if companies are meeting this need by hiring those with formal education, on-the-job training, or self-taught skills. Twenty years ago, the largest marketing firm in the world might have mostly been hiring people with a variety of degrees, but today, Google is really looking for people with skills in statistics.

Martin writes:

@Foobarista,

if what you say is the case, then schools that use the pass/fail system in the undergrad should have a higher number than schools that don't now that one of the dis-incentives is taken away.

@English Professor,

I like the fact that students also use grades as a learning device to know more about their ability and how they can be misled by these.

Floccina writes:

Teachers especially in the non-stem fields have opposing incentives. To keep your field going you need to have students. Also you want to educate and mentor your students. You want to be on their side. Yet you are supported to grade those same students and flunk some of hem out. Also a bad grade even reflects on your teaching ability. I think that we need a separation of education and grading.

Floccina writes:

BTW ideally employers should pay for the grading and the students and their families should pay for the education.

Floccina writes:
Gonna have to side with the "What STEM shortfall?" crowd here. Anyone willing to really try and defend that statement?

I think that what they are really saying is that they want smarter people. They do not so much want them to fill STEM job openings. Either that or they want more competition STEM so those who work in STEM are smarter than they are now. Either way good luck with that!

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