In a piece this week in the business-oriented Sunshine State News, Ed Moore, the CEO of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida (ICUF), seemed to argue that the emphasis on STEM education and the preparation of students for science and engineering fields is just a “theme du jour”, and that Florida should guard against letting the educational pendulum swing too far toward the scientific and technological:
But to grow properly and wisely we must have talent at every end of the educational spectrum. This is where Florida has the ability to leap ahead of other states. We must do different than other states, not copy the theme du jour. We must lead by design, not react to trends.
While the need for degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) is critical to economic evolution, there remains the need for a more broad based educational system that allows for adaptation, creativity, and innovation across the spectrum of fields.
Unfortunately, Ed has it backwards because he hasn’t gone back far enough in history. A meta-analysis by Rutgers researchers (linked below) tracked the selection of college majors by high school grads who earned scores on the SAT or ACT math sections in the top quintile – that is, the nation’s best and brightest. These results are summarized in this graph:
What the graph says is that 29% of the top math quintile from the high school graduating class of 1992 chose a college major in a STEM field, but that by 2000 the rate of STEM major selection dropped by half.
The 29% rate among the 1992 grads was not a fluke. The percentage of the best and brightest selecting STEM majors had been smoothly increasing for several decades, from 21% for the 1972 high school graduating class, to 24% for the 1982 graduating class, to 29% for the class of 1992. It was the class of 2000 that showed a “theme du jour”, in Ed’s words – a flight from STEM majors.
So if we are to take Ed’s theme seriously – that the healthiest course for Florida’s educational system is to restore historical trends – then we will adopt policies that will restore STEM to the place it held in the nation’s educational system until 1992, when almost a third of our best and brightest pursued college majors in the STEM fields.
Here’s where to start: Ed’s primary job as ICUF CEO is to protect the Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG) program, a scholarship program through which the State of Florida subsidizes ICUF member institutions. Let’s tighten up the eligibility requirements for FRAG to make sure recipients are STEM-ready by requiring them to take take biology, chemistry, physics and precalculus in high school. That will enable ICUF institutions to participate fully in setting aside the “theme du jour” flight from STEM majors.
Here’s the Rutgers study: