Florida’s parents need to know that the most financially secure bachelor’s degree-level careers are those that require a high level of education in mathematics and the physical sciences. Sixteen of the top 25 college majors ranked by salary involve engineering (see plot below). Physics, mathematics, economics and computing are in the top 25 as well.
Parents also need to know that preparation for those careers must start in high school, or even before. They also need to know that deciding to pass on high school courses like precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics can cripple a student’s ability to pursue careers in engineering and the physical sciences in college. Those same decisions also make it much more difficult to pursue careers in the health sciences and computing.
Are those messages getting out to Florida’s parents? Mostly not. A survey of state departments of education three years ago showed that our state’s high school students take physics at a rate about half that of the nation as a whole. Since then, Florida’s high school physics enrollment has declined further – by 8%. The state’s chemistry enrollment has declined by 9% in only the last two years. Florida’s aggressive program of high school financial incentives for student success in Advanced Placement courses has resulted in the state being a national leader in AP social science courses. But in AP math and science courses, Florida remains average despite the incentives.
When parents get these messages about what it takes to prepare in high school for college STEM majors, they react as you’d expect them to when their children’s futures are on the line. In Bay County’s Mosley High School, counselors Laura Evans and Sharon Hofer organized meetings during which I was able to talk with parents. Laura and Sharon did the heavy lifting – coaxing students and parents into actually signing up for courses in calculus, chemistry and physics. The results were remarkable. In two years (from 2015-16 to 2017-18), physics enrollments increased from six to 60, chemistry enrollments tripled, and calculus enrollments increased by 50%. This fall, 200 students were enrolled at Mosley for physics.
The Wisconsin Study of Families and Work performed a more rigorous study of the impact of parent outreach on students using brochures and a website. The results were spectacular. Not only did many more students sign up for upper level high school courses in math and science, but the effect continued through the selection of college majors and first jobs: The rate at which the studied students ended up in STEM careers was much higher than would have been expected otherwise.
Of course, parents aren’t the only important stakeholders. The STEM preparation message will not even get to parents unless a school’s administration and counselors buy in.
But at a time when Florida’s educational policies are increasingly focused on the role of parents as educational deciders, the importance of parents in preparing their children for economically secure careers is often overlooked. It’s time to change that.