Why Students Are Quitting STEM

Caveats abound, but it’s still true that STEM degrees generally lead to higher-wage careers than their humanities counterparts. Students have long since picked up on this, as both during and after the recession a rising number of college freshmen planned to major in STEM, especially engineering and biology.

Yet the story changes partway through college. While more students enroll in STEM fields, they’re also washing out at a disturbing rate—as high as 60%—as some switch to the liberal arts and others drop out of school completely.

Why? Are they no longer motivated by dreams of high-salary jobs? Is the work too grueling? And how can we fix this trend? Because while we do need sociologists and historians, the feverish growth of STEM jobs means we also need STEM majors to fill them. Bad. And there’s also the need to keep up with the young math and science savants from countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where test scores have outshone America’s for years now.

Why Students are Quitting STEM

19-2032_heroHere are some potential reasons for the alarming dropout trend.

  1. STEM degrees are immutably tough and many 18-year-olds (an increasing number of whom are flat underprepared) are quickly overwhelmed by the hurricane of homework and harsh, no-fudge grades. Combine this with the grade inflation in the liberal arts, and students have good motivation to switch to a course that is more subjective and forgiving. Or just bail altogether.
  2. STEM degrees were hugely popular during the recession for a reason: Students acted more strategically in the face of limited employment options. Bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering spiked 19% from 2009 to 2013, a statistic that includes students who took a look at the job market and switched degrees mid-college. But now our stabler economy has eased the pressure and students are less likely to gut it out through a rugged engineering degree, despite the lucrative carrot at the end.
  3. The pace of learning can be an issue. Rigorous freshman classes are often followed by two years of abstract courses before students finally get a chance to work with their hands. Slogging through the sawdust discourages many budding engineers who grew up inspired by bustling science fairs and plenty of opportunities to experiment with their favorite subjects.
  4. Among the elder generation, millennials aren’t exactly known for their industrious stick-to-itiveness, but—painting with a broad brush here—American millennials in particular are gaining a bad rap for laziness, especially compared to their Asian peers. In 2007 the American Institutes for Research reported that eighth-graders in the US scored below eighth-graders in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan—a “knowledge gap…spurred by a work-ethic gap,” according to Kara Miller, teacher of history and rhetoric at Babson College in Massachusetts.

So how to fix these problems? All hands on deck, because the solution involves everybody.

How Schools Can Help

25-1099_heroEducators are already laboring to boost college readiness across the board, but they should also fight to keep the STEM momentum going through college. Plenty of K-12 kids are interested in math and science, and it’s up to colleges not to let this fire die. Students easily discouraged by less than stellar grades (even straight-A students frequently see a GPA drop) should be encouraged not to give up on the assumption that they’re “failing.” Plus, classes could be more interactive and interesting. Lectures are cheaper but students learn better grappling with real-world problems than sitting passively in their desks.

For example, Notre Dame has recently rejuvenated a “stale” design course by adding hands-on assignments: building Lego robots, designing bridges, creating electronic circuit boards, and devising a personal project. Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, too, hooks students by allowing them to focus on world problems like hunger and disease. It also gives only “pass” or “no record” grades to freshmen until they acclimate to the workload.

Students, Game Faces!

First, it’s true: STEM isn’t for everyone.

The field’s exacting nature makes it clear that if you’re in, you should be in because it’s your passion. Look at Lesley Wright, a then 19-year-old freshman at the University of Florida-Gainesville, who realized after a brutal first semester that she no longer dreamed of being a pediatrician. She shifted to a major in public relations—and still relishes the decision. “Pay…can be low to begin with,” she admits, “but I honestly feel like my passion is reignited, and with that, I can go as far as I want with it. I wanted to switch to a major I both enjoyed and excelled at.”

17-3026_heroSecond, any laziness ought to be given a swift kick in the pants.

If you’re still in middle school or high school and you’re worried about being ready for college, don’t wait for your teachers to demand more, give more. It’s never too early to think about your career, so let the idea of doing what you love, providing for a family, and earning personal satisfaction (not just money) motivate you way ahead of time.

As for college students majoring in STEM: Think carefully before pulling the plug. If you’re smitten with chemistry (you’ve always been smitten with chemistry) and the only thing between you and a great job as a chemical engineer is hard work, don’t quit. Take an extra year if you have to; no shame in spreading out the workload. (The average college student spends five years on a four-year degree, regardless of their major.) Bottom line, make sure it’s your passion, then light a fire under it.

If both educators and students assume they need to be the ones to take the lead on these issues, the problem of low STEM retention rates will take care of itself.

To see whether your ideal career lies inside or outside of STEM, take our career assessment. Join us for Find Your Calling Day on March 2 and get a chance to win big—see details here

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