The Reason Why US Colleges Are Failing in Math and Science

STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. 

These four fields are the cornerstones behind any high tech, innovative economy. People who pursue STEM careers are usually high income earners and are among the most skilled workers in the labor force. Interestingly, we face a shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. This shortage was affirmed by the Obama Administration’s 2011 push to graduate 10,000 more engineers per year. We’ve also heard it in the media with reports claiming that STEM companies do not have enough qualified applicants to fulfill their demand. But how can this be? If STEM jobs are so prestigious and high-paying, why don’t more people pursue them? The answer is simple: our college education system is not effective in producing STEM workers. Many students are systematically “weeded-out” of STEM majors and are drawn to easier academic fields through grade inflation. I have first-hand knowledge of this problem as a former engineering student at Cornell University.

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning STEM majors end up switching to other subjects or fail to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors. But why do they switch?

The answer is simple: tough, abstract freshman year courses. Usually, advisors encourage incoming freshmen to take a wide variety of classes in their first year, so they can experience a large scope of fields and easily narrow down their choice of a major. However, many STEM majors are forced to take a dry set of “weed-out” courses in their first year. These courses are usually abstract, focusing on the prerequisites of the major which can include high-level calculus, chemistry, physics, computer science, and biology courses. Since these lectures are usually large, most freshmen cannot ask clarifying questions during them and are forced to rely on crowded office hours, which can be discouraging settings for a vulnerable first-year student. The problems do not stop there. Class exams are usually difficult, with class grade averages ranging between 30-60% out of a possible 100%. Of course, professors cannot give failing grades to almost every student, so they create a grade distribution, where for example, a 50% score equates to a “B” and 10 points higher is an “A” and 10 points lower is a “C.” Even with this crazy grade distribution, many students fail the course or carry low GPAs for the rest of their college years. Both of these factors attribute to students leaving STEM majors, especially when they observe their friends who are pursuing majors such as economics or psychology with high GPAs, low stress, and a fabulous social life.

Of course, first-year courses are not the only issue. Students with inadequate high school preparation and a lack of work-discipline will most surely fail in STEM classes. However, colleges can also help address the STEM major problem. Lowering grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences will disincentivize STEM majors from leaving their majors. In addition, incorporating more practical classes in freshman year, especially for engineering students, to practice manufacturing and designing projects would inspire more passion and insight into STEM fields. Also, replacing the traditional grading system with a pass/fail system exclusively for freshman STEM students would help them get accustomed to their intense workload and relieve the constant stressor of a low GPA. These three simple steps would go a long way in retaining more STEM majors and graduating these highly skilled workers into the labor force.

In my sophomore year of Cornell, I left the engineering school and decided to become an economics major. This decision was very tough because I thought engineering was a fascinating field, and it would lead to a variety of career opportunities. However, I was the victim of a freshman year engineering debacle and personally faced many of the issues I stated in this article. I don’t regret my decision, since I am very happy as an economic major. However, if Cornell implemented just a few of my proposals, maybe things would have turned out differently, and Cornell would have graduated at least one more STEM major.            

            

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Michael Wodka

Michael is a senior studying economics at Cornell University. He has held numerous policy internships including ones with the National Research Council and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He is also the President and Senior Policy Chairman of the Cornell Roosevelt Institute Chapter. Michael is interested in macroeconomics, the political economy, and income inequality.

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