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. Devan says:

    I think this shows that we need more science in the high schools. Get students prepared so that they are ready to follow their passions in science. My requirements for high school left me with no physics and a good grade in chemistry with minimal actual understanding. I ended up following math rather than science, since I was FAR more prepared. I didn’t even consider science even though it interests me now post-grad.

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  2. ScienceGrad says:

    Interesting discussion. One of the most important things that I notice about science in education is that it is looked down upon. Unfortunately not just in high-schools but also in colleges. A person who is good at Science and/or Math is called a nerd, and is rarely “popular” or even socially “blend-able”.
    I’m assuming that due to this, many young people with an un-discovered aptitude for science would move away from it early on. Being smart and good at math and science should be equally socially rewardable in schools as being a cheerleader or being a football player or being a good singer or.. you get my drift. Of course teenagers will be teenagers, but these attitudes get reinforced from childhood… at home, watching TV, listening to parents talk etc.
    There are so many TV shows that show “nerdy, weird” stereotypes.
    Things will change if attitudes change.

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  3. rogue49 says:

    Could it be the curriculum is too out of scope, inefficient and overly formalized?

    As a previous physics major (current software designer and amateur scientist), I found that often both math and science is taught not in a intuitive and applicable manner…but more often focused on the details and methodology further than the student is oriented to or interested in.

    Perhaps if the at least the initial classes were focused on less academia & the “rules” and more on “how things work” which is really what they are interested & love, then they’d understand better. Then bring in the more details and methods as they get further acclimated.

    I find that most students are stressing more about the rules and formula than truly understanding what it really “means”.

    The only ones who get through it are either the classic students who know the system and absorb the rules despite their true understanding or those rare ones that have that knack at understanding it despite the academia.

    I’d say, it’s not the students…but the teachers’ lack of understanding what the students need to know to absorb, understand and be interested.

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    • Mark N. says:

      rogue49 is correct. Too much emphasis is put on rigor. Math/Science should be engaging, challenging, and meaningful. For sure. But do you know why students do not have personalized education (in any discipline)? Because public school are factories ruled by high stakes tests that are all that Policymakers care about. As a result, teachers must teach a “one-size-fits-all” mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum that covers all the bases for the test. If there were no tests, all my students would have a more engaging math class that is personalized depending on the students’ strengths and interests.

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      • Kevin says:

        @MarkN I agree completely, but you can not expect different when there is a public monopoly on education.

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  4. Mark N says:

    True Kevin, but some states’ Policymakers are showing signs of relinquishing their stranglehold, though I think their impetus is more about union-busting than educating students.

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    • Oliver H says:

      It is a naive belief that giving education in private hands would make anything better. In Germany, a private school just had the entire class flunk their final high school exams, leading to each and every one of the students losing a whole year of their life. I have yet to hear of any such event from a public school.

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      • Mark says:

        Florida FIT tests, circa 2000.

        The problem with education isn’t public vs. private. It’s that too may people want to control curricula — what gets taught. Math is math. Education should be personalized much the same way a fitness trainer trains her clients. Everyone doesn’t want to be like Arnold and Lou. Similarly, not everyone is motivated to win a Nobel prize.

        Still others have suggested that better instructional methods would make better scientists and mathematicians. Read the book… Parent IQ is more correlated with academic achievement than social influence.

        Science and math are hard. In addition to intelligence, STEM prospects can’t be afraid of hard work. Like any acquired skill, math (and science) need to be practiced regularly.

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      • Oliver H says:

        As the son of an expert on modern literature and a sociologist, and a PhD in sciences myself, I believe I can compare quite well. Academia is hard, period. And it is sometimes much easier to get a sense of purpose and meaning in natural sciences than in, e.g. humanities. Biomedical research can have a direct impact on the lives of people, whereas the advantages for society through cultural disciplines are far less tangible. Even if someone goes into basic sciences, they even can cite literature as to what drives them:
        “So that I may perceive whatever holds // The world together in its inmost folds.” (Goethe, Faust I)
        Thus, motivational factors can be easier to find for people not “born” with a passion for the discipline when studying sciences. But that requires teachers/professors actually trying to kindle the fire.

        There is a quote attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, though his original phrasing is quite a bit different:
        ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”

        It is the same with academia. All too often, we make the mistake of believing e.g. sciences is all about memorizing numbers and formula when in fact these are mere tools, means to an end. If I want people to learn sciences, it is paramount that I kindle a curiosity as to how the world around them works on the most fundamental levels – biology, chemistry, physics. If I want to teach linguistics, I need to make people want to understand why we speak the way we speak (or other people speak the way they speak) and why their ancestors spoke differently. If they want to, no, HAVE to know how these things came to be, learning the tools of the trade is, rather than a chore, a necessary evil, perceived as coming one step closer to their goal.

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      • Kevin says:

        “Author: Oliver HComment:It is a naive belief that giving education in private hands would make anything better. ”

        Its equally naive to believe the reverse. More importantly, its silly to believe that you can have public funding without public accountability and that the public at large will ever be very learned about effective education or cohesive in their opinions of what they feel is a measure of success.

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