Studying STEM Isn’t The Career Boost We Think
For some understandable yet deeply misguided reasons, a defining majority of our country’s discourse has focused on the financial outcomes of college – the blindingly narrow “return on investment.”
Reducing college to dollars and cents is a way to measure the impact of college, but it’s an awful one. Unfortunately, that single metric has led higher education into some awful places such as believing that college tuition is too high, that student debt is crushing or, worst of all, that going to college is no longer a “good investment.” It’s worth repeating that getting a college degree is likely the single best investment you can make, even if you take out loans to get it.
The “return on investment” paradigm has also led us into some dark policy corners such nudging students into STEM studies and away from the liberal arts. And, a step further, offering college funding agreements that make it more expensive to study subjects like history and writing than subjects such as engineering or computers.
Behind policies and practices such as those is the presumption that people who get degrees in the “hard” STEM subjects get better jobs and make more money than those who earn degrees in other things – the engineering major versus the philosophy major, for example. Again, that’s based only on money, what you get in your bank account in exchange for your investments of time and money.
But, and here’s the important part, that’s not entirely true.
Turns out, getting a STEM education may help you get a good job early but if you want a good career, you’re better off in liberal arts lane. In other words, even if you’re only measuring money, a liberal arts education is probably worth a ton more than most people may think.
At a basic level, those of us in the liberal arts cheerleading squad always knew that the financial rewards available by studying English and history and arts were hefty. Many of us just rejected the measurement, refusing to put a crass calculator to the power of enlightenment.
A recent piece by David Deming in the New York Times, “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure,” lays out the financial case. Frankly, I wish I’d written it. And it should absolutely be required reading for every college-bound high school student and every high school and college counselor.
Deming’s findings, based on data from the Census and other sources, paints the clear picture that graduates with skills-centered degrees, STEM-type degrees, get jobs with good earnings right out of the gate. But by the time college graduates enter their peak earning years, liberal arts learners have caught up and passed them.
According to the data relayed by Deming, by age 40 male STEM-type graduates pulled in an average salary of $124,458. At that age, “social science and history majors” earned $131,154. Even the average college graduate in any subject made nearly $112,000 at age 40 – eliminating just about all of whatever financial boost STEM graduates eared right away. The trend was similar for female graduates.
And, significantly, by the time STEM degree holders reach 40 years of age, more than half of them aren’t in STEM jobs anymore.
In addition, as workers age and their salaries and job responsibilities grow, they tend to transition into management and leadership roles. Those jobs are more likely to require tools such as communication, empathy and abstract creative problem solving – skills picked-up by studying arts and letters.
Underscoring that point is that STEM skills often require updating and getting more knowledge throughout a career. What a computer science graduate may have learned when they earned their degree, say 25 years ago, is probably largely outdated and irrelevant now. To keep their jobs, they have to go back to school, frequently.
Not only does that reality mean that STEM practitioners will have to spend more over their careers to keep up, it puts pressure on employers. Just as wages are expected to grow due to age and experience, employers face an economic choice – pay someone in mid-career more or pay someone younger and less expensive. If both have just learned the same new skills, it’s a decision likely to cut against STEM degree earners as they advance, depressing their career-long earnings.
Put it this way, the more that technologies change the job market, the better it will be to have a degree in a non-technology, non-science field. Liberal arts skills last longer and are more likely to remain relevant in twenty or thirty years.
If you’re determined to measure college based only on the money it delivers, it’s important to be clear that, even then, studying STEM and technology may not provide the return we think – especially long term.
I write about education including education technology (edtech) and higher education. I've written about these topics and others in a variety of outlets including The Atlantic, Quartz and The Huffington Post. I served as vice-president at The Century Foundation, a public policy think tank with an emphasis on education and worked for an international education nonprofit teaching entrepreneurship. I also served as a speech writer for a governor of Florida, worked in the Florida legislature and attended Columbia University in New York City. I'm a member of the Education Writers Association.