NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

College Has Been Oversold

October 26, 2011

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 the vital fields of science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has been flat.  Further exacerbating this problem is that, of the few graduates in those fields, many are foreign-born and often return to their native countries upon graduation.  Altogether then, the United States is producing a proportion of college graduates in STEM fields far smaller than it did in years past, says Alex Tabarrok, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University.

  • In 2009, the United States graduated 37,994 students with bachelor's degrees in computer and information science -- a number that is below absolute figures from 25 years ago.
  • That same year, the United States graduated 5,036 chemical engineers and 15,496 students in mathematics and statistics, both of which are almost the same as they were in 1985.
  • In the field of microbiology, 2009 graduates totaled just 2,480, which is almost the same number as 25 years ago.

Politicians and economists focus on STEM areas of study because science, technology, engineering and math are the most reliable sources for innovation and growth in the economy.  Desire for this growth and the belief that higher education provides a positive spillover effect for the country as a whole is the primary rationale behind public subsidization of college programs.  However, with fewer students entering these fields, it becomes questionable if society is truly gaining a return on its investment.

Furthermore, gradual migration away from STEM fields is also hurting students, leaving them ill-equipped to enter the workforce and uncompetitive for good positions.  Half of all graduates in humanities settle into jobs that don't require degrees, and their average wages are far below that of their STEM-studying colleagues.  Therefore, the declining proportion of STEM graduates compels two conclusions.

  • First, the public is no longer receiving ample return on its investment in higher education.
  • Second, incoming students are being oversold on the financial benefits inherent in a college degree, without performing ample comparison of the benefits of each area of study.

Source: Alex Tabarrok, "College Has Been Oversold," Investor's Business Daily, October 19, 2011.

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