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STEM Benefits Being Oversold?

U.S. education lusts for STEM. Prepare to be pitied if you ask at a school conference what the acronym means (science, technology, engineering, math). There are STEM schools, STEM programs, STEM books, STEM experts. STEM grant applications get more respect. Everybody says STEM careers mean more money.

So I hesitate amid all that excitement to expose a flaw in the STEM movement. College Measures, a joint venture of the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge Group, has analyzed the data. The problem can no longer be ignored. The S in STEM has been oversold. Science might have created the modern world, but it is not a lucrative career choice.

“Employers are paying more, often far more, for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics (TEM),” College Measures President Mark Schneider wrote in his report, “Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others.”

But “evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in biology earn a wage premium — in fact, they often earn less than English majors,” Schneider wrote. “Graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.”

We might also reconsider our obsession with college name recognition. If grandma doesn’t smile when she hears the name of the college our children have been admitted to, we feel guilt and shame. Schneider’s data suggest that what you study matters more than where you study, at least in terms of salary. In Virginia, a master’s degree graduate in creative writing will make on average less than $32,000, while a master’s in nurse anesthesiology will get you about $130,000 a year.

The problem with majoring in science is dramatically illustrated by a chart in the report. In Virginia, the first-year earnings for a bachelor’s degree graduate in biology will average $25,347, while a bachelor’s in business administration and management will make $35,565.

A career in science has its psychic rewards. Exploring or teaching the roots of existence can be fun. It seems a shame to spoil a label as compelling as STEM. But it might be time for a reassessment.

“Politicians, policy-makers, governors and many others trumpet the need for STEM education to feed the STEM workforce,” Schneider wrote. “Despite such rhetoric and clamoring, the labor market is far more discriminating in the kinds of degrees it rewards.”

This is partly why the United States does not produce as many science graduates as the STEM folks think we need. U.S. undergraduates soon learn there is more money in business careers. Science programs tend to have more than their share of students whose families came from countries where scientists are admired despite their salaries.

I’m not saying that science is not a worthy pursuit. But for years we’ve heard that STEM is the path to success. Perhaps science will give you personal happiness, but it’s not going to pay you a lot of money.

Should we switch to TEM? So far that option doesn’t have much traction. Wikipedia defines the word as a small town in Tajikistan or a tribe in Togo. But give it time.