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STEM Cannot Support Top-Down Policy

STEM Cannot Support Top Down Policy

In 2008, over 61% of advanced degrees in engineering from American universities were awarded to non-U.S. citizens. For mathematics, 50% of advanced degrees went to foreigners. But foreigners only composed 8% of those who received education degrees.[1]

This trend is alarming for two reasons. First, it shows that the United States will grow increasingly more reliant on foreigners to fill positions in math and science related fields. Secondly, this pattern shows that American students are choosing fields of study that are generally considered less rigorous.

Are we doing enough to attract students into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? The Obama administration thinks not and has launched the “Educate to Innovate” initiative, which will spend $260 million to get more American students interested in STEM subjects.[2]

But unsurprisingly, “Educate to Innovate” is yet another Federal attempt to throw money at a symptom, rather than an underlying problem. What the Obama administration is missing is that American students are not less interested in STEM subjects than their European and Asian counterparts. Instead, those Americans interested in STEM subjects are not able to receive degrees. According to the New York Times, 40% American college students with a STEM major end up switching majors or are unable to pass their requirements. The numbers are even worse than they look when we take into consideration that students who have STEM majors typically have the best SAT scores of all college students.[3]

Certainly, there is a great deal of decay in the American university. Tenured professors can simply delegate the actual teaching to a textbook, while students flock to the abstract subjects such as humanities where grades across the board are inflated.

But are our STEM programs overly rigorous? Well, not for the foreigners, at least. Certainly, there are a few cultural and social aspects that are at play here. While American children are constantly told “you can be whatever you want when you are older”, a Chinese student is much less likely to consider dropping out of engineering to go back home with a degree in art history. Quite simply, the dynamics of the American job market are different and affect what American students study. But even amidst a deep recession where American companies have to import labor for stable and high paying STEM jobs, American students are still not graduating with STEM majors.

The fact of the matter is that Americans are unable to graduate in STEM fields. In most cases of attrition, most STEM majors often drop out after only introductory math and science courses. In fact, these courses typically have the lowest grades on a given college campus.[4] While our crumbling universities deserve some blame, pronounced failures in introductory STEM classes shows that our students are unprepared.

Which brings us back to public elementary, middle, and high school education. With the Federal government taking an expanded role over education, the United States is reaping what centralization and bureaucracy have sown. Consequently, it only takes one misguided policy from the top to affect everyone. Our current education policies are not sustainable, as the stakes could not be higher: namely our country’s ability to innovate and compete in a constantly changing world.