Rick Scott, Florida’s governor, created a firestorm recently when he suggested that Florida ought to focus more of its education spending on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and less on liberal arts. Scott got this one right: We should focus higher-education dollars on the fields most likely to benefit everyone, not just the students who earn the degrees. Scott, however, missed another part of the equation: We need to focus more attention on the students who are being left behind, the millions of college and high-school dropouts.
Over the past 25 years, the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in STEM subjects has remained more or less constant.
Consider computer technology. In 2009 the United States graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. That’s not bad, but we graduated more students with computer-science degrees 25 years ago!
The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering, math, and statistics. Few disciplines have changed as much in recent years as microbiology, but in 2009 we graduated just 2,480 students with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology—about the same number as 25 years ago. Who will solve the problem of antibiotic resistance?
If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering, and math, what are they studying?
In 2009 the United States graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math, and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual-and-performing-arts graduates in 1985.
There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those graduates don’t get a big income boost from having gone to college. (Read more.)