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Is There Really a Shortage of Science Majors?

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Go for that science degree, but don't expect to get rich off of it.

CREDIT: Flickr/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Recent reporting here at Campus Progress has cast doubt upon the idea that a college degree is a secure ticket to economic success. But not because education isn't a worthy investment, but because there are other factors to consider like the job market. Half of college grads are in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, some are working for minimum wage, and the surplus of grads will likely persist even as the economy recovers.

A common comeback is that we aren’t producing the right kind of college graduates: It’s all those English and art history majors! If they had majored in computer science, they would have a good job!

As the Washington Post reported last month: “If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on in Washington, it’s that the country has a woeful shortage of workers trained in science, technology, engineering and math—what’s referred to as STEM.” The STEM shortage has also made headlines in Time, Bloomberg, and US News and World Report.

But a new study by the Economic Policy Institute calls the conventional wisdom into question.

“The United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations,” according to the report, which was released last month.

The evidence? Only half of graduates with STEM degrees end up in a STEM job. Computer science grads who don’t enter the IT field say it’s because jobs are unavailable (32 percent) or that they found better opportunities elsewhere (53 percent). Real wages in STEM jobs have remained flat.

“If students really want to be scientists and are interested in that field and are good at it, then by all means, get a science major,” Daniel Kuehn, one of the report’s authors, told Campus Progress.

“But don’t go that route under the impression that there’s a lot of pent up demand for it, you’ll get rich there, and that sort of thing. That’s just not what shows up in the data.”

The STEM misconception is a potent one. The idea of the "American dream" hinges on mobility: We don’t guarantee everyone a good life, the theory goes, but if you work hard and play by the rules, you will be rewarded.

The existence of college graduates who are struggling poses a big challenge to this idea. If grads—the spitting image of "worked hard, did every thing right"—aren't being rewarded, what does that say about the state of our roads and avenues to the middle-class? The “you should’ve majored in science” retort is an attempt to reassert meritocracy: You’re struggling not because the game is broken, but because you played your hand wrong. 

With the evidence that maybe we don’t have an endless need for STEM majors, hopefully now we can start focusing on the real sources of workers’ struggles and the real solutions to them.

Chris Lewis is a reporter at Generation Progress. Follow him on Twitter @chris_lewis_.

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