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”?


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


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?


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.

Eric M. Jones

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.)


>> 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.


Erik Jensen

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).


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.



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.


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.


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.


"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


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.


"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.



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.


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.


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.


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"...


"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.


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.

Andrew B

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.


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."

Jerry Lawence

No kidding.

Andreas Moser

(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.


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.


Bryan H

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?"


Oliver H

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.


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.


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.


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.


Mark N.

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.


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

Mark N

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.

Oliver H

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.


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.