Anyone who reads a newspaper is bombarded with a continual flood of statistics as to how the U.S. is falling behind in science, math and technology education. Unfortunately, gaps which emerge in primary and secondary schools are magnified through college, graduate school and most importantly, into the workplace. Our STEM education-to-employment pipeline is in desperate need of repair.
We are being continually bombarded with news of the failures of the U.S. educational system. Although concerns span virtually all subjects, they are particularly severe in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—the language of technological innovation and the foundation of most of the country’s competitiveness in global markets.
The problems, particularly for U.S.-born students (with the sole exception of Asian-American males), seem to compound at every step of the educational ladder and are now beginning to profoundly affect the workplace
Primary and Secondary Education Shortfalls
These shortfalls begin in our elementary and high schools. Consider, for example, that:
- The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam found that fewer than one-third of elementary and high school students have a solid grasp of science. Worse still, students are falling further behind each year of study, with only 34% of 4th-graders, 30% of 8th-graders and 21% of 12th-graders being proficient or advanced;
- The OECD’s 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found U.S. 15-year-olds near the mean for test scores and below the median ranking for each of the three tested areas, ranking 16th of 30 in reading, 21st in science and 29th in math;
- The New York State Education Department found that only 37% of all students who entered high school in 2006 graduated with math and English scores high enough to qualify them for college. The figure was worse in most cities, where 21% of New York City, 14.5% of Yonkers and 6% of Rochester students would qualify.
These primary and secondary education system shortfalls in science and math education flow inevitably upward, through all levels of college and university education. And this was all before the current slashing of public education budgets, teaching staffs, school hours and classes—cuts that span all levels of the education spectrum, from K-12, to community colleges, state colleges and even Tier-One public research institutions, like the University of California at Berkeley.
College STEM Challenges
Although the percentage of high-school freshman who actually graduate from high school is falling, there are indeed some positive trends among those who do graduate. First, the percentage of high-school graduates who go directly to college is steadily increasing (from 57% in 2000 to 63% in 2008). Even better, the percentage of incoming college freshman who plan to major in STEM-related fields has recovered from a decline in the 1980s and ‘90s, to approach Cold War levels, reaching 31% in 2004 and 34% in 2009. Amazingly, these percentages are almost identical among Whites, Asian-Americans, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. In fact, the only major demographic group that is underrepresented in the “quantitative sciences” is women.
This is where the bad news begins. Among those freshman who initially aspire to a STEM degree, fewer than one-third actually graduate with these degrees within five years. Most of these entrants either drop out of school, change majors to less demanding disciplines, or take longer to graduate.
These are multiple reasons for this fall off. Many who did well in high-school classes (especially those who were not enrolled in AP classes) find themselves ill-prepared for the rigors of a STEM education. Many have to take remedial courses before ever getting to degree programs. Fewer still are prepared for the demanding workloads or are willing to accept the lower grades these courses typically produce. As we have seen in study after study, the U.S. educational system—from elementary schools through universities—is migrating to fewer classroom hours, less homework and easier grading. College students, in particular, increasingly view college at least as much of a social opportunity, as an educational opportunity.
It is in this period, between entering college and graduation, that demographic differences become pronounced. Although similar percentages of all racial groups initially aspire to a STEM degree, the differences in the percentages from each group that actually earn these degrees in five years are huge:
- 42% for Asian-Americans;
- 33% for Whites;
- 22% for Latinos; and
- 18% for African Americans.
Meanwhile, women, who now account for 58% of all U.S. college students, and an even larger percentage of honors degrees, are increasingly opting out of quantitative disciplines. True, they do (at least as of 2006) account for a majority of bachelor’s degrees in sciences including psychology (78%), agriculture (51%), biology (62%) and chemistry (52%) and are well-represented in some emergent engineering disciplines, such as environmental and biomedical. They, however, represent only small—and declining—minorities of quantitative degrees. As of 2006, for example, women earned only 20% of engineering, 21% of physics and 22% of computer science degrees. Their participation in computer science, in particular, plummeted from 37% to 22% over two decades (1985 to 2005).
And this does not even begin to assess the many problems that are plaguing the nation’s community college system—a system that is required to provide the skilled labor required to assist engineers and to produce and service innovative products. (See my series of blogs, beginning with The Community College Contribution.)
U.S. Graduate Schools as Magnets for Foreign-Born STEM Aspirants
These trends are further magnified in graduate STEM programs—but with another, big, new wrinkle.
U.S.-born racial/ethnic minorities and women have long accounted for small minorities of U.S. STEM graduate classes. Although U.S.-born minority students are gaining some ground (from 29% in 2000 to 34% in 2007), most races continue to be greatly under-represented as a percentage of all graduate students. For example, as of 2007, only 8% of all African American, 12% of Native American and 13% of Latino graduate students are enrolled in engineering, physical sciences, and biological sciences programs.
Whites are also increasingly under-represented in these programs, accounting for only 16% of total U.S.-born White graduate program enrollees. The big gainers, not surprisingly, are Asian Americans, with 29% of all of those enrolled in U.S. graduate programs studying in engineering, physical sciences, or biology.
Although women are also gaining some ground in quantitative graduate programs, their numbers and percentages remain small, accounting for fewer than 10% of all U.S. PhDs in electrical, mechanical and aeronautical engineering. (They do, however, represent more than 25% of chemical and industrial engineering doctorates and more than half of all social science and biology PhDs.)
Although U.S. born Asian-American males are rapidly ascending the STEM educational ladder, even they are being overwhelmed by Asian-born, naturalized U.S. citizens and especially by Asian citizens who chose to study in the U.S. In fact, while 90-95% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees are now awarded to U.S.-born students, 55% of all STEM PhDs now go to foreign-born students.
Although some of these foreign-born candidates are naturalized U.S. citizens, the number of foreign citizens studying in U.S. STEM graduate schools has exploded. The number of STEM doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders, for example, grew by 50% (compared with 18% in those to U.S. citizens and permanent visa holders) between 2003 and 2008 and now account for 38% of total degrees.
Even these totals, however, are dwarfed by numbers in specific fields. Visa holders, for example, now account for 45% of all physical science doctorates and 57% of all engineering doctorates awarded by U.S. universities. (A 2010 Congressional Research Service study suggests that even some of these percentages may be too low. By the time one combines those in the U.S. on permanent, as well as temporary visas, 67% of all engineering PhDs are granted to non-U.S. citizens.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This all sounds very ominous. It appears, from the numbers, that the U.S. is rapidly losing its ability to produce its own technical talent and that we will be forced to rely on “imports” for the scientists and engineers that will be required to rejuvenate our economy and compete in an increasingly technology-driven, global economy.
But is the situation really this bleak? What is the current state and the future of the U.S. technology workforce? What can U.S.-based technology companies do to address the nation’s and their own talent requirements? What role can non-U.S.-based companies play in addressing our talent shortages? Can the U.S. government help, or should it just get out of the way.
I will address these and a number of related issues in my next several blogs.