U.S. colleges and universities are graduating as many scientists and engineers as ever, according to a study released on Oct. 28 by a group of academics. But that finding comes with a big caveat: Many of the highest-performing students are choosing careers in other fields. The study by professors at Rutgers and Georgetown suggests that since the late 1990s, many of the top students have been lured to careers in finance and consulting.
"Despite decades of complaints that the United States does not have enough scientists and engineers, the data show our high schools and colleges are providing an ample supply of graduates," said study co-author Hal Salzman, a public policy professor at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. "It is now up to science and technology firms to attract the best and the brightest graduates to come work for them."
The onus for improving the stock of scientists and mathematicians thus falls more on employers than students, the report's authors say. "If a 12th grader asks us for advice about whether to pursue a career in physics, math, or engineering, what would our advice be?" says co-author Lindsay Lowell, a professor at Georgetown University. "It's difficult to say. There is such a surplus of talent."
The study, entitled Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline, was conducted with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on science education. The report analyzes longitudinal data to examine the transition of American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from high school into the labor force.
Is It Just About Money? The 1990s marked a turning point in longer-term trends for the best students in high school and college, according to the study. "The top quintile SAT/ACT and GPA performers appear to have been dropping out of the STEM pipeline at a substantial rate, and this decline seems to have come on quite suddenly in the mid-to-late 1990s," reads the report. The result has been a "compositional shift to lower-performing students in the STEM pipeline."
The researchers' conclusions suggest that making careers in STEM fields more attractive—through higher salaries, for example—could help employers solve recruiting problems for top talent. "Highly qualified students may be choosing a non-STEM job because it pays better, offers a more stable professional career, and/or is perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies," reads the report.
Employers such as Microsoft (MSFT), however, argue that the problem of attracting talent would not be solved by raising pay but rather by adding more of the best candidates to the talent pipeline. Last March, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates testified before the House Committee on Science and Technology and said salaries are not the problem when his company tries to recruit top scientists and engineers. "It's not an issue of raising wages. These jobs are very, very, very high-paying jobs," he said.
Proposed H-1B Visa Exemptions Gates argued that there is a decline in student interest in the sciences and that changes in immigration policy should be made to help fill gaps in the labor market. At the hearing, Gates advocated for a variety of changes to U.S. immigration policy, including extending the period foreign students can work in the U.S. after graduation, increasing the current cap on H-1B visas [for skilled workers], and significantly increasing the number of green cards issued annually. Tech companies such as Google (GOOG) and Oracle (ORCL) also advocate these policies as part of Compete America, the tech industry lobbying group.
While it's likely that immigration reform legislation will wait until after the health-care debate is completed, a number of bills are circulating in Congress to address employer concerns. Representatives Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) have this month been urging colleagues to co-sponsor H.R. 1791, the so-called "STAPLE" Act of 2009. It would exempt foreign-born individuals who have earned an American PhD in STEM fields from annual limits on the number of employer-based green cards and H-1B visas awarded.
In a letter to the House of Representatives on Oct. 27, Flake and Quigley wrote that the STAPLE Act "is the simplest, most commonsense step Congress can take to create jobs and ensure both American competitiveness in the global marketplace and increase the likelihood that future Nobel laureates will do their work inside the U.S."
Computer Science Courses Dwindle Tech companies aren't the only ones claiming the U.S. faces problems producing adequate numbers of students and job seekers interested in STEM. Industry associations in such fields as computer science say they also detect diminishing opportunities to pursue careers in this area. "The trends in computer science aren't consistent with the broader trends [identified] in this data," says Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Assn., a New York-based professional organization of 7,400 high school-level teachers. "It's safe to say that computer science is an outlier. We have severe problems in our pipeline at every step of the process."
Stephenson says the number of computer science courses taught at the high school level has dropped for the past six years, especially at advanced levels. In 2005, 40% of U.S. high schools offered Advanced Placement courses in computer science; that number sank to 32% in 2007 and to 27% in 2009. "It's clear that the number of students taking computer science is dropping," she says.
Heads of other professional organizations also criticized the study for its lack of specificity among industries. The argument is that some STEM students and graduates may be worth cultivating more than others. The report's authors said it would have been too difficult and costly to perform a longitudinal data analysis by individual industry.
"There's a problem when you paint with a large brush and put all STEM fields together," says Gordon Day, president of IEEE-USA, a professional group of engineers. "We want to encourage the best and the brightest, smart and trained, entrepreneurial and energetic individuals to create jobs [in the U.S.]. Engineers create jobs. Scientists like marine biologists, particle physicists, and astronomers [typically] don't."