The Economics of Higher Education, Part 1: Science Is Hard

(Photo: Martin Lopatka)

If you are the sort of person who worries that the U.S. is not producing enough college graduates with science degrees, it’s worth wondering exactly why that is. In a new working paper (abstract; PDF), Ralph Stinebrickner and Todd R. Stinebrickner offer a compelling answer: science is hard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking advantage of unique longitudinal data, we provide the first characterization of what college students believe at the time of entrance about their final major, relate these beliefs to actual major outcomes, and, provide an understanding of why students hold the initial beliefs about majors that they do. The data collection and analysis are based directly on a conceptual model in which a student’s final major is best viewed as the end result of a learning process.  We find that students enter school quite optimistic/interested about obtaining a science degree, but that relatively few students end up graduating with a science degree.  The substantial overoptimism about completing a degree in science can be attributed largely to students beginning school with misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science.

Do we file this item under “overconfidence” or “good gatekeeping”?

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  1. Adam says:

    The full paper is the PDF link on the page with the abstract…

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  2. Mike says:

    Good gatekeeping. Having bad scientists is worse than having no scientists. Besides, if we change the requirements of what it takes to be a scientist (i.e., reduce the difficulty of the course), we will still find that position so desirable?

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    • george says:

      I believe that science is a vital part of our economy – and having scientists (along with experts in all sorts of other “difficult” disciplines) will be critical over the next 50-100 years to ensure that we in North America can continue to enjoy even a fraction of the quality of life that we now enjoy.

      We must not reduce the requirements of what it takes to be a scientist, I believe we need to increase our expectations of how much work we must do, and how productive we must be as a workforce in order to maintain our quality of life.

      We need to start viewing our “jobs” not as inconveniences but as a means for survival.

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    • Mike B says:

      The fallacy here is that all STEM degrees are at the same level of hardness or require the same types of skills. True, certain degrees are very hard for anyone that isn’t wired for it from birth or can devote 110% of their time faking the same skills through rote memorization. Usually it comes down to the level of math required. Plenty of STEM degrees don’t require crazy math, in fact there are many that don’t even require much in the way of difficult math. Still, you’re going to have to be grade A comfortable with High School level math at a minimum, but you won’t believe how many people have an aversion to this and then opt for a softer social science or humanities degree.

      So while Physics and Quantum Chemistry may not be for many, anything that teaches programming and computational theory or statistics will give people 21st century skills without making their head explode with nasty math.

      College needs to teach people three things. How to work with and program computers. How to do some amount of advanced math and how to write/communicate effectibly. What you “specialize” in is more icing on the cake.

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    • Jason says:

      I agree about gatekeeping, but not good. There is an assumption that intro science courses should weed people out. But, they don’t get pushed to other sciences, and there are few efforts to support different paths. You can become a religion major at any point in your college career, but good luck switching into engineering or pre-med if you didn’t start there.

      If the problem is defined by perceptions, it should be met with a response that addresses perceptions. As a society, we can either A) tell kids how hard science is and warn them to be careful; or, B) tell kids that there are lots of types of science and that they should pursue the one that makes them most comfortable. We seem to focus on response A, which is why misperceptions lead to dropping out. Why not focus on option B, and help kids who wash out of Organic Chemistry discover math, physics, etc.?

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      • Oliver H says:

        Amen, @Jason. Shouldn’t it be the task of colleges to convey the necessary abilities? I mean, they are teaching institutions, no?

        Science is hard? Not when it’s done the right way; Kindling curiosity, teaching critical thinking and showing the benefit of abstraction to understand fundamental principles. Everything else, sorry @MikeB, is tools that are more relevant for some parts of science than for others. Once in graduate school, you add more fundamental theory of science and standards of evidence – true, that’s where you’ll have to add some statistics, too. But done right (and I’ve held basic introductions to some aspects for non-graduates), it can be an entertaining and understandable subject.

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    • Kevin says:

      Its certainly not good gatekeeping as a whole. Young people shouldn’t be entering college without a better appreciation of what their abilities and interests are, and for that matter, the true nature of their would be profession. The elementary and high school systems in this country are an absolute joke.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    Okay, so explain to me why learning something hard, which has little social rewards, requires constant re-education, gets derated by H1-B’s and pays so little, is a great career path?

    (p.s. I have a science degree, a bunch of patents, and am chronically unemployed. I advise any young student to get a business, finance or law degree and forget this S.T.E.M. nonsense.)

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    • george says:

      >> Okay, so explain to me why learning something hard, which has little social rewards, requires constant re-education, gets derated by H1-B’s and pays so little, is a great career path?

      Maybe that’s part of the problem. Science provides great potential for sky-high salaries if you can excel in your field, but it’s a ‘high-risk’ investment. I can be a great career path, but it’s dog eat dog … certainly not for anyone expecting any sort of stability of job security regardless of your performance.

      >> (p.s. I have a science degree, a bunch of patents, and am chronically unemployed. I advise any young student to get a business, finance or law degree and forget this S.T.E.M. nonsense.)

      But, businesspeople, financiers, or lawyers do not “produce” anything. They manage, administer, or regulate the processes and output of scientists. This is not to suggest they that are not needed … but if we (North America) are not producing anything, then there will be no need for businesspeople, financiers, or lawyers.

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      • Erik Jensen says:

        What do you mean by “producing anything”? Scientists produce science, business people produce businesses, lawyers produce justice, etc. How are these things substantively different? Sure, there are useless business people who are nothing but parasites, but the same could be said about some scientists (I am one, but hopefully not the useless kind).

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      • Phillip says:

        The difference between jobs that “produce” something and those that do not comes down to the creation of surplus. Go back to neolithic times and there was no surplus to support idle citizens. Everyone had to work to feed themselves. With agriculture, farmers were able to produce more than they consumed, making it possible for a group within society to not farm. These became priests, housewives, soldiers, and royalty. A priest may add to our cultural experience of the world and provide us comfort, but they don’t increase our material welfare in terms of food or products. In today’s world, we produce enormous surpluses allowing many people to work in jobs that don’t “produce” anything (food, products). A scientist can be seen as someone who advances our productivity and is thus a producer, while a banker is simply leveraging a monopoly position (the monopoly on the creation of funds) to squeeze some surplus away from the producers.

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      • george says:

        @Erik Jensen. Re: “producing” something – I guess I mean that for companies that make anything … (cars, phones, computers, farming equipment, highways, TVs, medical equipment). The companies exist because scientists had ideas and developed things. Then, we require businesspeople to manage the company, financiers to manage the books, and lawyers to manage the legal implications.

        Banks don’t “produce” anything. They loan others’ money to other people who buy products (houses, cars) that are designed, produced, or improved on by scientists.

        I don’t think a “business” isn’t a product. A business sells products that are designed by scientists, or provides services using tools that are created by scientists. I could start a business cutting people’s hair. Yes this is useful, I had a haircut yesterday. But a barbershop on every street corner will not help us compete in the international economy.

        “Justice” is not a good or a product. Necessary? Of course. Does enforcing justice within our own country make us more competitive in the global economy? To a point, maybe … but realistically .. no.

        A marketing firm (as another example) will have nothing to market if we are not creating products to market.

        Business, finance, and law are not “useless”. Scientists, left to themselves without businesspeople, marketers, financiers, or lawyers would be equally “useless” in a modern economy. But, you have to acknowledge the chain of causality in that someone has to create something first before we can buy it, market it, sell it, account for it, or regulate it.

        And, without innovative world-class scientists to improve what we already are capable of producing, the rest of the world will simply leave us in their economic dust.

        Sorry for the rant. One last thought. “Made in China” is status quo. Some products are advertised as “designed in (insert 1st-world European country here)”. We have high-priced designer jobs in the west, and low-priced manufacturing jobs in Asia. What if in 50 years our consumer products read “Designed and made in China/India”? What are we going to be “producing” in order to make the money to afford these things?

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      • Jose C. says:

        Anybody can have a great idea, but sometimes this person lacks skills to transform his/her idea into a marketable product and joins forces with an engineer. But they will need to finance their project, so they hire a finance consultant and eventually find someone with money and will to make it happen. Engineers alone will not make it happen.

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    • James says:

      Science pays so little? As compared to what, 0.0001% of the population that gets to be investment bankers?

      As for it being hard… Well, that’s part of what makes it interesting. Easy is usually boring, kind of like “running” a marathon in a golf cart.

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      • James says:

        PS: On the “pays so little” complaint, why do you suppose it is that business, finance, law, and suchlike have unpaid internships, while an intern at a top Silicon Valley tech company will be paid something in the $50-70K range?

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      • Joe says:

        pays so little? Probably a big difference between a freelance research scientist in the pure science and a corporate “applied scientist” working for a big-name Silicon Valley firm.

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    • hmmm says:

      Sorry to hear about the intermittent employment. It’s a tragic reality for so many people. One could spend 20 years of their career specializing in a field, and becoming an industry leading expert in a technology that suddenly becomes obsolete, overnight.

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    • Donald D. deRosier says:

      Eric, as somebody who has physics and law degrees, you might want to rethink your suggestion about pursuing law for employability purposes. There’s currently an oversupply of lawyers. Heck, there’s even been a book written about it (“The Lawyer Bubble”). And I’m pretty sure that getting a Ph.D. in, for example, physics, won’t leave you with over $150,000 in student debt.

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    • Buah says:

      Caution, many different types of “science” degrees.

      Many computer scientists are fully employable in the industry while they are still in high school 😉 Many walk out of university after 4 years with a computer science or engineering degree and start at $75,000.

      Not so for a pure sciences degree (biology, chemistry, physics, psychology) where a masters or Ph.D is pretty much the price of admission to the job market.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        I’m a Chinese. We don’t really consider Biology as Hard Core Science, neither is Chemistry. Is killing mice and washing tubes hard?
        We do consider Math, Physics, ME, Double E, Certain areas of Computer Engineering (BI, for instance), certain areas of CE (Building bridges and refiners) as Hard Core science.
        I have plenty of friends coming from these hard science background and none of them has really been out of work. They move from one post doctoral position to another.

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      • Oliver H says:

        @Enter your name…

        Sorry, but may I say I doubt you understand what science is to begin with? Chemistry is not about washing tubes, and biology is not about killing mice.

        Science is about improving our understanding of how the world around us probably works. And to do that in a way that is reliable, you need quite a bit of math, especially statistics. Chemistry is also about putting parts of the world around us together in new ways. This also requires certain standards in order to be reliable. One of the reasons we have plenty of turgid medical papers being published is that medical students get even less training in scientific method and the necessary statistical background than science students.

        Engineering, incidentally, is applied sciences, and would get nowhere without the knowledge generated by chemistry and physics.

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    • Steve O says:

      That is demonstrably bad advice. STEM graduates have much, much better prospects than other fields, especially law and business.

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  4. george says:

    Took (and finished) an engineering degree in Canada. At an orientation session in our main lecture hall before our first class … a prof stood in front of the auditorium and said “Say hi to the person on your left, then the person on your right. Only 1 of you will graduate.” 1 in 3. He wasn’t kidding. Some students quit part way through first year, some stuck it out a couple years and eventually gave up on their own terms, and many were kicked out because they simply couldn’t handle it.
    I won’t even bother to try to filter this for political correctness. It is a simple, inarguable fact that in many of my classes of 200+ students, there were fewer than 10 Caucasians. Many were second/third generation immigrants, however a very large number were international students. So, many of the graduates from North American schools aren’t even North Americans.
    Now, working in the hi-tech industry, I see first hand that entire departments of North American hi-tech companies are being outsourced overseas. As a customer-facing engineer – I am often working with other engineers overseas. Most of which who are equally competent or far more competent that any engineer working here – but working for a small fraction of the paycheque.

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    • george says:

      And careful … no superiority complex here or anything like that. It was damn hard and I had a t0ugh time, myself. Life is hard and I don’t believe that our life will get any easier over the next 50-100 years, I believe that our society has a long way to go to realize and accept that.

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    • Robert says:

      After hearing those odds, did anybody move to a seat on an aisle?

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  5. John says:

    I wish other degrees had this same degree of difficulty. I think it would take the entitlement feeling out of “earning” a degree.

    I see alot of people post about how their (usually business) degree is worthless because they can’t find a job, when in reality they probably should have been weeded out of the program Freshman year or earlier.

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  6. Chad says:

    For me personally, I got 2 years into a physics degree and ended up getting math and statistics degrees. I am not sure if that still counts as getting a science degree, but the reason I changed majors did not have to do with physics being too hard. It was just that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I was used to. I would caution against concluding that people changing out of science majors necessarily due to being too difficult.

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  7. tyler says:

    “Do we file this item under “overconfidence” or “good gatekeeping”?”

    Neither. “Bad Gatekeeping.”

    The hardest bit about science ins’t the math, it’s the culture. In my 10 years in the academy I saw a steady stream of outstanding students driven towards other fields who didn’t share my cultural background.

    It was horrifying to watch the the amount of talent our society lost because the people in charge were human, and therefore had a subtle but pervasive preference being around people they felt comfortable with — people who shared a cultural background. My father is also a college professor, so I fit right in. Latasha did not.

    That said, at least 90% of any population doesn’t have the cognitive and emotional framework to excel in a STEM field, so some sort of gatekeeping is required. I

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    • James says:

      I have to challenge your “culture” explanation, on several grounds. First, why do those cultural difference problems seem to apply to people from only one (or perhaps a few) particular cultures? Are the adjustments any harder for than for someone from the backwoods of America, rural China, or a remote tribe in New Guinea? (Those are respectively me, my former girlfriend, and a classmate.) As someone pointed out above, in STEM mainstream Caucasian Americans are a minority.

      Second, STEM is really not that much of a social thing, which is partly why it appeals to so many of us who are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Being able to do good work usually trumps sociability.

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      • tylerh says:

        “why do those cultural difference problems seem to apply to people from only one (or perhaps a few) particular cultures…rural china”

        We are discussing the black-white difference because that is what was measured in this case, not because that is only interesting difference. These cultural effects everywhere [*]

        The question why rural chinese succeed where American’s fail has an even easier answer: selection bias.

        All but a carefully chosen few even get the chance to apply to an American engineering school. The fraction of Americans in US engineering schools is much higher than the fraction of rural Chinese (or New Guinean’s) in US engineering schools.

        “Second, STEM is really not that much of a social thing, which is partly why it appeals to so many of us who are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Being able to do good work usually trumps sociability.”


        This attitude is exactly what I am talking about. perhaps a personal anecdote will make my point clearer.

        My Father’ father has 6th grade education. The culture of college was a complete mystery to my father. For example, no one had ever explained to my father how to take notes or how to study. So, despite having blow-out test scores and ferocious work ethic, my father had to withdraw from Purdue after three terms. Luckily, he got a second chance. Once armed with knowledge of Academic culture, my father went from a High School diploma to a seven years and enjoyed a long, successful career as a college professor. He work worked hard at both attempts at college, but he didn’t succeed until he learned the culture.

        Your own post shows that culture matters: ” [STEM] appeals to so many of us who are somewhere on the autism spectrum.” That is, you are drawn to STEM because there is something distinct about its culture. There is nothing wrong this — culture matters in all human endeavors. But to ignore that STEM’s unique culture influences who succeeds and who fails in STEM education is to be both willfully blind and a crappy problem solver.

        [*] For example, google “stereotype threat” for one example that is so well documented that even the underlying cognitive mechanism is known.

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      • James says:

        “For example, no one had ever explained to my father how to take notes or how to study.”

        And? No one ever explained those things to me, either. Indeed, I’ve gotten to PhD level without, as far as I can remember, having taken any notes other than writing down assignments. I’ve never understood how people are supposed to concentrate on understanding what a lecturer is saying while writing it down. To me it seems as difficult as playing the guitar while riding a bike. And study? You do the exercises until you understand what’s going on, and the answers come out right.

        As for the culture thing, the culture of STEM is that culture doesn’t really matter. Nor do I think your stereotype threat concept really applies, because if you are the sort of person who tends to be attracted to STEM in the first place, you are so far out of the cultural norm of wherever you grew up that you don’t really think of yourself as belonging to that group. Indeed, you’re lucky (or perhaps not) if you can convince yourself that you’re human, and not an abandoned alien raised by wolves.

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    • Mark says:

      “Sheldon Cooper” syndrome? Mathematicians and scientists are no longer viewed this way. Folks like Michio Kaku are making STEM more interesting. Programming like Brain Games, Through the Wormhole, and How It’s Made are also helping. Half of my school senior class is signing up for my AP Statistics course.

      I think STEM is wide open to anyone with an imagination and a little smarts.

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  8. Ted says:

    I think a big reason for the change in major is experience. Not so much difficulty or overconfidence. College opens up a world of educational opportunities the average high school student never experience. For example, I had never heard of Sociology entering college. I did not know what Poly sci really meant or international relations. Every US high school student took classes in science, Math, English, probably language and some extra-curriculurs. A couple of weeks or months at college and all of a sudden a new world of opportunities emerge.

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