The op-ed below was written by me and published in the Tallahassee Democrat on August 10.
If you’re a parent who is encouraging your kids to excel in science and math courses and nudging them toward careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, then here’s something you should know: Not all STEM careers are created equal.
Bachelor’s degree grads in the biosciences not only earn less than grads in other STEM fields on the average, but they also earn less than the average for non-STEM fields. Furthermore, the state’s educational system seems to be ignoring this economic reality by steering students toward the biosciences.
The number of bioscience bachelor’s degrees awarded by Florida’s public universities has exploded during the last 10 years, while the percentages of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the more lucrative engineering, computer and physical science fields have been flat or declining during the same period.
A report recently published by Temple University economist Doug Webber examined lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree graduates in a variety of majors.
His general conclusion — that professionals with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields earn more on the average than those with bachelor’s degrees in other fields — is not a surprise.
But when Webber broke down the general category of STEM fields into four more specific categories — biology, computer science, engineering and physics — he found that bachelor’s degree graduates in biology have career earnings that are lower than the average earnings for bachelor’s degree graduates in non-STEM fields.
After correcting for an “ability premium,” which accounts for fact that more talented individuals tend to earn more than less talented individuals with the same level of education, Webber found that bachelor’s degree graduates in non-STEM fields earn $2.36 million over a career, while the average for bachelor’s degree grads in STEM fields is $2.75 million. However, the average for bachelor’s degree grads in biology is only $2.17 million.
Career earnings for bachelor’s degree graduates in the other STEM fields examined by Webber are considerably higher. Adjusted for the ability premium, the career earnings for a graduate in computer science are $2.92 million; in physics, $3.02 million; and in engineering, $3.33 million, which is more than 50 percent greater than the earnings of a biology grad.
It’s important to mention that Webber’s analysis excluded those who earned postgraduate degrees. So an individual who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and then earned a medical degree is not included in the analysis. Nor is an individual who went on to earn a doctorate in engineering, physics or computer science.
But for parents and policy-makers who are interested in the economic power of a bachelor’s degree, the conclusion is clear: STEM bachelor’s degrees have widely different values.
Majoring in biology may be fine for a student who has plans to enter professional schools in medicine, physical therapy or other health professions. But by itself, a bachelor’s degree in biology does not offer many viable career paths. And it’s worth noting there are other routes to medical school — the highest average scores on the Medical College Admissions Test are earned by students majoring in economics, physics, biomedical engineering, mathematics and electrical engineering.
This is where there is a disconnect between education policy in Florida and economic reality.
The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biosciences by Florida’s public universities exploded from 1,392 in 2003-2004 to 3,629 in 2012-2013.
That represents an increase from 3.13 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded by the State University System (SUS) in 2003-2004 to 5.84 percent in 2012-2013.
Meanwhile, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering was nearly flat — 5.34 percent in 2003-2004 and 5.42 percent in 2012-2013. The story was nearly the same in the physical sciences, in which 0.90 percent of grads earned their degrees in 2003-2004 and 1.14 percent in 2012-2013.
For computer fields, in which the state’s workforce needs are urgent, the picture is much worse. While 2.81 percent of SUS bachelor’s degrees grads were in computer fields in 2003-2004, by 2012-2013 that had declined to 1.74 percent.
This is not just a university problem — some of the blame must rest with Florida’s K-12 system. The only science course specifically required for high-school graduation in the state and assessed with a statewide end-of-course exam (and therefore counted in the state’s grading scheme for high schools) is biology. Physics — the high-school science course that provides the gateway to careers in engineering and the physical sciences — is not required even for the state’s new “Scholar” high-school diploma designation.
If you are the parent of a daughter, here is one more thing to keep in mind: Women earn about 60 prcent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in biosciences in the SUS, but less than 20 percent of those awarded in computer fields, engineering and the physics. So for whatever reason, Florida’s girls and young women are being steered into the least lucrative STEM fields.
It’s clear that a refocusing of Florida’s STEM education effort is in order — at both the K-12 and university levels.
The state can start by ending the preference for high-school biology and adopting the Massachusetts model for graduation requirements in science: offering statewide end-of-course exams in biology, chemistry, physics and technology/engineering, and allowing a passing score on any one of those exams to satisfy the science exam requirement for graduation.
And the state’s Scholar diploma designation should be modified to require a complete set of science courses — biology, chemistry and physics — so that the state’s young scholars are equipped for any of the STEM career paths offered by the state’s universities, not just the least lucrative.