STEM Beats - 2017

Is College a Waste of Money?

November 16, 2017

"College for all" is so last decade. The school reform pendulum has been swinging away from the goal of universal college attendance since at least 2010, as career and technical education (CTE) gained new respect after years in the wilderness. A new report from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce lends support to the CTE cause--but not without important cautions.

The resurrection of CTE was, in fact, long overdue. Researchers have shown that a two-year degree or strong technical certification can be a ticket to a good job, and employers like Dow Chemical have struggled to fill high-paying jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree. The most compelling evidence for CTE? Hundreds of thousands of young people who labor under crushing college debt without a degree to show for it.

The Georgetown study turned up some 30 million good jobs that do not requre a bachelor's degree:

30 million good jobs

In fact, Change the Equation research has found that STEM grads with a two-year degree or less have often fared better than non-STEM grads with a bachelor's degree:

Yet the Georgetown report also challenges the growing refrain that four-year colleges are simply a "waste of money." Yes, there are millions of good jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree, but those jobs make up a shrinking percentage of all good jobs:

Share of good jobs going to workers, by education level

The bachelor's degree is gaining ground in the workforce. College is certainly too expensive, and college majors aren't all created equal, but it seems premature to predict the demise of college.

One important concluding thought: Many pathways to good jobs do not run through four-year colleges, but all such pathways require very strong academic skills. A report from the Center on Public Education found that high school grads could earn as much as college grads, provided they do well in school, take advanced math and science classes, take CTE courses, and get a professional certification. 

College or no, you won't succeed without a strong academic foundation. The millions of U.S. high school graduates who lack this foundation have few pathways to prosperity.

Tags: higher education

The Other Gender Gap in STEM

November 2, 2017

Like most other STEM advocates, we have devoted a great deal attention to the critical shortage of women and girls in many STEM fields. A short article in Forbes magazine offers a timely reminder of another STEM gender gap that could have profound effects on our economy: the shortage of men.

Recent projections from the Bureau of Labor statistics underscore the stakes. Between 2016 and 2026, there will be almost 540,000 new jobs for registered nurses (median wage: $68,450), nurse practitioners (median wage: $104,610) and physician assistants (median wage: $102,090). Each of these occupations requires very substantial STEM knowledge and skill, and each is growing much faster than average. According to Economic Modeling Specialists International, more than 90 percent of registered nurses and nurse practitioners are female, as are 65 percent of physician's assistants. It will be much easier to fill these jobs over the next decade if we attract more men to the profession.

So far, so bad. The gender gaps are already enormous in high school:

In fact, the gaps are getting worse, not better:

In STEM CTE, the gender gap is growing

These jobs in health care pay very well, they're growing, and they're critical to our national well being as Americans age. We can't keep drawing the lion's share of our health care workforce from just half the American population.

Tags: women & girls, diversity, jobs & workforce

The Ongoing Plight of Girls in STEM

October 19, 2017

As the nation reckons with the retrograde or often demeaning messages so many women encounter throughout their lives, it seems a good time to remember how these messages exacerbate gender imbalances in STEM.

A pair of sticker books published together in 2011 and still in wide circulation offer a startling illustration of the problem:

In page after page, the books imply that boys can aim for the stars (quite literally) while girls should have decidedly more domestic ambitions. (See hereherehere, here, or here, for more examples.) For all the strides we have made in the last decade, our culture is still awash in this sort of thing.

It's hard to be surprised, therefore, that girls still tune out of STEM before high school. Here's some recent, and depressing, evidence from the most recent Nation's Report Card in science:

Conversations about the messages we unwittingly send girls can be uncomfortable, but silence is certainly worse.

Tags: women & girls

Putting a Price on Elementary Math

October 12, 2017

Take a close look at the following chart. It conveys some bad, but not surprising, news about math education in elementary schools.

Students who aspire to elementary teaching face low scores & salaries

Students who are most likely to succeed in college math are most likely to plan majors in fields like engineering, computer science, or medicine, which lead to high-paying STEM jobs. No surprise there. Those who aspire to elementary teaching, by contrast, are among the lowest-paid professionals on the list, and most have a shaky foundation in math.

That spells trouble for elementary school children, whose grasp of math is unlikely to exceed that of their teachers. Elementary math skills are after all among the most important predictors of success in high school.

If our elementary teachers remain near the bottom of the salary and math achievement scales, can we expect our students to be first in the world?

Tags: math, teachers

Is CS for All Really a Sinister Plot Against Tech Workers?

September 26, 2017

If we are to believe Ben Tarnoff of The Guardian, he has uncovered a nefarious plot. The broad national effort to bring computer science classes to every American high school is, per Tarnoff, a cynical ploy to depress wages in the tech sector. Can Tarnoff be right? Can equity really be so unjust?

Let’s consider the alternative. If we keep rationing skills and opportunity by sticking with the status quo, the benefits of our innovation economy will continue to bypass millions of Americans. That would be sinister, indeed.

Tarnoff’s case rests on the faulty conviction that coding jobs are scarce. “Teaching millions of kids to code won’t make them all middle-class,” he claims. “Rather, it will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down – and that’s precisely the point.”

To support his argument, Tarnoff turns to a four-year-old study claiming that the United States produces too many computer scientists as it is. That study was roundly discredited soon after it was released, and computing jobs have only gained steam since then.

Tech wages are rising, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that jobs in computing will grow by 12.5 percent between 2014 and 2024 (almost twice as fast as all jobs), and unemployment in computer occupations stands at a vanishingly small 2.4 percent

If anything, these figures probably minimize the demand for computer science skills. Our research has found that the BLS typically counts only half of the Americans who use complex computing skills in their work. Why? Traditional job titles have not kept up with the tech revolution.

Some 3.8 million Americans in careers we don’t normally associate with technology write computer code, develop software, or maintain computer networks on the job. For example, many ad agency jobs now require computer science degrees.

Computing across the economy

These jobs are out of reach for millions of poor and minority youth whose schools do not even offer computer science courses. Computer Science for All aims to upend that status quo. 

To Tarnoff’s credit, he implicitly backs away from his own argument near the end of his article. After impugning initiatives like for their base motives, he writes:

Everyone should have the opportunity to learn how to code. Coding can be a rewarding, even pleasurable, experience, and it’s useful for performing all sorts of tasks. More broadly, an understanding of how code works is critical for basic digital literacy – something that is swiftly becoming a requirement for informed citizenship in an increasingly technologized world.

Amen! So why, then, should we deplore the effort to bring computer science into all high schools?

It’s preposterous to think that educators, tech companies, state leaders, President Obama, and now the Trump Administration have all signed on to a conspiracy to cheat America’s tech workforce. But let’s pretend for a moment that they have.

If so, Jorge Luis Borges’s famous dictum on art should give us comfort: “Nothing is more secondary than the author’s intentions.” If the road to a better future is paved with bad intentions, then so be it.

Tags: computer science, jobs & workforce