Several years ago, Bill Gates injected himself and a ton of cash into the education debate, leading to Race to the Top, which essentially stripped teachers everywhere of tenure and created the Common Core and its science counterpart NGSS. While the results are still in an early stage, the evidence right now shows that education is not improving, and the number of teachers entering the field is dropping precipitously at the same moment that retirements and attrition are taking off.
Why did Bill get involved? One of his biggest public pronouncements on the issue was that he could not find enough quality engineers, computer scientists, etc to hire. It is overwhelmingly true that we need more people in STEM related fields, and it should be attracting people, because right now, those are the fields with the money. I mean, there are politicians out there who are keen on shutting down parts of higher education that aren’t useful from a technological/economic standpoint (then again some politicians want to close down the very STEM areas that are so crucial, so what do they really know?).
This new study from the Journal of Science and Technology Education shows an alarming trend: Based on a study of college undergrads who started as STEM majors, 48% ended up changing to a non-STEM major before graduation (or dropping out altogether). Even more alarming, when the study focused strictly on students that were regarded as high performing (based on entrance test scores and college grades since admission, 36% ended up leaving their STEM major (I guess the good news here is that STEM was not the field showing the highest rate of attrition in colleges and universities … over 60% of education related majors did not graduate with their intended degree).
Where are these kids going? The study breaks down into: humanities, behavioral science, business, education, health, and other. “Other” is the clear winner. “Education” had the smallest number of transfers, which tends to counter a lot of preconceived notions that teaching is the bastion for those who couldn’t succeed elsewhere (because who would go into education today, amirite?). Among the top performing students, humanities, social sciences, and business were (receptively) the fields of choice, but were all very close. For moderately and lowly successful students, business was overwhelmingly the field of choice (after “other”). Education saw the lowest number of transfers (into education) of all ability levels, though, again, going against common assumptions, the lower achieving students had the smallest number of transfers into education.
The conclusions aren’t terribly shocking: the STEM students most likely to transfer out of their major were people who didn’t take a lot of STEM as a freshman, and tended to earn poorer grades. Students who attended highly selective colleges were more likely to switch out of STEM than moderately selective institutions, and STEM majors in public universities were more likely to switch than those at private universities.
So why are top performing students who go into STEM majors jump ship? As noted, they generally see a chance to succeed in other fields. So why do so many high performing students suddenly under-perform in college? That is a more complex problem … change of environment, lack of oversight from parents, grades in high school that were not indicative of a rigorous course??? All of the above and more.
It would be interesting to see a follow up to this study in 5-10 years or so.