Bioscience

STEM defection seen to occur after high school

November 10, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

STEM defection seen to occur after high school

Sean Cavanagh, Edweek.org

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.

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