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. meanonsunday says:

    I would suggest a third explanation. Poor preparation in secondary schooling. In the US students typically study only one science at a time even in high school, and so when they start college they are actually studying basic material that in most other countries would be taught to 15-16 year-olds. No wonder they have false expectations, the fundamentals that should have been taught over 4-5 years before college now have to be rushed in their first two years of college. When the student compares the effort required for just a mediocre grade to the easy A’s available in many other subjects then it can’t be any surprise when they choose a non-science major.

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    • Mike says:

      I’d throw in a 4th reason. Spending all your time in the library has an adverse effect on the “college experience”. College is pitched as a place to meet other young people and explore the world and relationships and what it means to be an adult. To this end, schools have spent tons of money on nice facilities for anything that’s not education: gyms, cafeterias, dorms, etc.

      Committing to a rigorous major means removing yourself from a wide range of other things you could be doing with your time at school. I think it’s perfectly understandable that so few students choose to sacrifice fun times in college to study an in-demand field.

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      • JustBob says:

        Frankly, as a college professor who’s taught in both places, I find an “issue” in reference to the “college experience”. Typically, American college students have it all backwards – they think college is a place to go to party, live it up, stay up all night, and meet people/socialize – then graduate and get a job and “knuckle down to business”. In Asia, it’s the other way around – students come to college to study – to work – to learn – and they focus, knowing that after they graduate with a meaningful degree and worthwhile knowledge, THEN they can party, relax, meet people/socialize, and enjoy while they have a job and are making income. It’s completely culturally backwards here – thus, the “weeding out”, particularly in STEM, occurs somewhat naturally, due to failure to focus or looking for the “easy major”…

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      • James says:

        “I think it’s perfectly understandable that so few students choose to sacrifice fun times in college…”

        You know, you may be on to something. Maybe the whole reason for my college success is that I never really enjoyed drink or drugs, and loathed popular music.

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      • Andreas Moser says:

        @JustBob: And in Europe, we get the combination between studying and enjoying life right. :-)

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  2. Uthor says:

    “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.”

    Sounds less like a problem with colleges and more of a problem with poor preparation at the high school level.

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  3. Chris says:

    As a student from a large school with a fairly smart student body, I would say the majority of science majors simply switch because they find something that interests them more, particularly pre-meds. I am currently 2 years into a Chemistry degree, but am switching to Economics in the upcoming semester. Will this increase my career outlook? Probably not. But at least I’ll be studying something I’m passionate about.

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  4. Andrew B says:

    As a physician who majored in the social sciences but took a lot of science classes it seems clear that science courses are almost always more difficult and graded harder (for myself and most American educated students) and not just because of the math. Most premeds do not drop out of it because of lack of interest but because of the toughness of the courses (i.e. freshman Chemistry and later Organic Chemistry, even more than Physics) which is why I think only one of 12 premeds make it into American medical schools.
    Poor preparation in secondary schools could be a factor but I doubt most high school students get that great a preparation in the humanities and social sciences as well.

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    • Mandy says:

      I teach writing at a highly selective American university. All of my students are smart. The majority of them arrive at college with no conception of how to construct a clear argument and writing a paper defending it. I know it’s not the only factor, but the NCLB testing groupies have been filling these kids heads with poison for years by the time they get to me, and I get one semester to undo the damage before I send them along to professors in their majors. In other words, what you said is true. It’s not just the STEM fields where they’re ill-prepared. In fact, I think they sometimes get a bigger shock when they struggle in their humanities courses, because they’be been told that those courses are going to be “easy.”

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  5. Jerry Lawence says:

    No kidding.

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  6. Andreas Moser says:

    (Failed) science students make up a disproportionate number of terrorists and mass murderers: – So maybe it’s better that not more people are trying to get science degrees.

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  7. Gary says:

    Besides the difficulty of math and science for many people, a more universal problem is the difference between expectations and reality. What it takes to study science in college is different than in high school. A parallel can be seen in the 25% of students who leave the college they chose after one year to go somewhere else or do something else. There are lots of reasons, but the fundamental cause is the mismatch between what is presumed and what actually is. When it’s too wide a gap, disappointment and changed plans follow. With studying science, much more should be done to inform students of what it takes to become a practicing scientist. This would be a great kindness for those who don’t have the highest levels of enthusiasm and determination to achieve their goal. And individuals should devote more thought to what they want to do and what they are capable of, relative to their competition, before going too far down a path.

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  8. Bryan H says:

    I find no major faults or issues with the conclusion that the decline in science majors can be explained by self-selection. It even seems sort of obvious as someone who has been a part of science academia for a decade.

    However, this study has very subtle and yet very profound implications for the university education system as a whole. What does it say about majors in the social sciences and humanities if students are changing into those educational programs because sciences have too much of an impact on their GPA? What does it say about these majors if students are entering and succeeding in alternative programs only because the skill sets they have are inadequate for an education track or career in science? The ivory towers of science certainly appear taller than the ivory towers in other disciplines, but this study begins to quantify why this perception exists. The big question that this study raised for me is, “Should we be producing majors that are perceived to requires less work/skill/rigor at all?”

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    • Oliver H says:

      If you can see no fault, let me ask you this: How do you rule out other interpretations?

      Another question: “Should we be producing majors that are perceived to require less work/skill/rigor at all?” Counterquestion: What does the perception have to do with the justification of the course?

      The real question in my eyes is why the perception exists. All too often, it has much more to do with how the contents is delivered rather than how hard it is to learn. And extrapolating from that, maybe it’s worthwhile taking a look at whether some of the teaching staff in sciences maybe has a skewed balance between research and teaching.

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