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2011 November 05 Saturday
Alex Tabarrok Says Higher Education Oversold

Higher education's average amount of delivered value has declined. The result? Waste, high costs, more debt, declining living standards. Only lower value (and easier) education has expanded.

Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has remained more or less constant. Moreover, many of today’s STEM graduates are foreign born and are taking their knowledge and skills back to their native countries.

So the number of students taking easier and lower value majors has soared while the number of native born taking the hard and most valuable majors has actually declined. Is it any wonder that living standards are declining? Plus, all these students in lower value majors are paying more to get a degree and entering the workforce (or trying to enter the workforce) deeply in debt.

This is not a recipe for prosperity and economic growth.

Consider computer technology. In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering, math and statistics.

STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors have the greatest economic value.

The top 10 majors with the highest median earnings are: Petroleum Engineer ($120,000); Pharmacy/pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration ($105,000); Mathematics and Computer Sciences ($98,000); Aerospace Engineering ($87,000); Chemical Engineering ($86,000); Electrical Engineering ($85,000); Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ($82,000); Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering and Mining and Mineral Engineering (each with median earnings of $80,000).

Studying art or counseling is a recipe for very low pay and little or no generation of wealth.

The 10 majors with the lowest median earnings are: Counseling/Psychology ($29,000); Early Childhood Education ($36,000); Theology and Religious Vocations ($38,000); Human Services and Community Organizations ($38,000); Social Work ($39,000); Drama and Theater Arts, Studio Arts, Communication Disorders Sciences and Services, Visual and Performing Arts, and Health and Medical Preparatory Programs (each at $40,000).

Alex points to an article in The Nation where the writer bemoans the failure of the job market to create highly paid jobs for puppeteers. Leftism and common sense do not go hand-in-hand. What a bizarre and narcissistic sense of entitlement.

What astounds me is not that someone could amass $35,000 in student loans pursuing a dream of puppetry, everyone has their dreams and I do not fault Joe for his. What astounds me is that Richard Kim, the executive editor of The Nation and the author of this article, thinks that the failure of a puppeteer to find a job he loves is a good way to illustrate the “national nightmare” of the job market. Even in a wealthy society it’s a privilege to have the kind of job that Kim thinks are the entitlement of the middle class. And, as Tyler says, we are not as wealthy as we thought we were.

The Nation article is about Occupy Wall Street. One way to interpret it: the Executive Editor of The Nation thinks the US economy is failing (presumably due to evil bankers) because it does not generate high-paying jobs for people who choose to study solely for the pleasure they derive.

A substantial fraction of STEM majors drop out of the demanding course work.

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

The odds of getting more people to take hard STEM courses? Very low.

Other deterrents are the tough freshman classes, typically followed by two years of fairly abstract courses leading to a senior research or design project. “It’s dry and hard to get through, so if you can create an oasis in there, it would be a good thing,” says Dr. Goldberg, who retired last year as an engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now an education consultant. He thinks the president’s chances of getting his 10,000 engineers is “essentially nil.”

What would raise the odds of more students doing STEM degrees: Cut out taxpayer subsidies for the lower value alternatives. No more loans or grants for students wanting to major in theater or art or communications studies.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 November 05 07:42 PM  Education Returns On Investment

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bbartlog said at November 6, 2011 4:45 AM:

The removal of H1B programs would also encourage more people to undertake engineering. In the second half of the 19th century, US engineers made some significant multiple of the median wage (I want to say 8x but my memory is spotty). Now that's more like 3x, or even a little less.
That said, there really is a supply problem in that there simply aren't that many people with the requisite brainpower. Changing some laws could divert people from finance/economics, philosophy, and so on, into engineering, and might get a few marginal students to go to the extra effort of bulling their way through, but it's not going to change the overall picture. Dysgenics are in operation.

WIC said at November 6, 2011 9:00 AM:

Richard Kim and the rest of the assholes at The Nation can go fuck themselves. Then again, they might learn something if the minorities they love so much fuck them too...

TJ Hooker said at November 6, 2011 4:30 PM:

The law bubble has started to burst, and the financial and medical bubbles will eventually, what career is a smart/conscientious/ambitious young American supposed to do? That alone should make engineering more attractive.

I also wonder what percentage of those 37,994 students with a "bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science" actually end up with a career in "Mathematics and Computer Sciences" and are counted in that $98,000 median wage statistic. That wage seems high, and I am sure a lot of those graduates are pretty marginal in computer science. I would guess those two groups are more disjoint than they appear.

I also want to say that a median wage of $105K for a bachelors in "Pharmacy/pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration" is an economic rent that's not going to last.

Ted said at November 6, 2011 9:59 PM:

There are a lot of confusing signals out there, though.

On the one hand, you have articles like in the post above suggesting that computer science is a valuable degree, programming is a good field to go into, Silicon Valley is booming, startups are great and sexy, etc.

On the other hand, you hear about how programming is a terrible career (, how it's been and is being destroyed by outsourcing and insourcing, and you get warned against going into it.

And this goes for other similar technical, engineering fields as well.

These are very confusing signals for young men who are trying to make their way into the world.

So what's the truth? Is something like computer programming a good field to go into these days and will it be a good field in the near future?

Mthson said at November 6, 2011 11:35 PM:

Ted, one thing I've learned in general about careers is that articles tend to be written with the average reader in mind.

The trick is to just put in more energy and intelligence than the people around us, and previously feared obstacles turn out to be low bars to jump over.

Ted said at November 7, 2011 5:24 PM:

Thanks, Mthson.

Randall, what's your take on it from your experience in the software industry?

Randall Parker said at November 14, 2011 8:11 PM:


I hear about how outsourcing has destroyed the demand for US software developers. But that's not my own personal experience. I know people who write software for $100k+ per year who do not even have computer science degrees. Mind you, they are very smart people.

Look at charts of starting salaries for college grads by major. It is hard to look at such a chart and argue that software development is now a ruined occupation due to outsourcing. Granted, if China and India had never started to industrialize we might have higher salaries in the US for software developers. But we aren't exactly paid like truck drivers or roofers.

Bootlegger said at December 13, 2011 5:34 AM:

"Alex points to an article in The Nation where the writer bemoans the failure of the job market to create highly paid jobs for puppeteers. Leftism and common sense do not go hand-in-hand."

Actually, the writer is describing how teachers' wages along with many in the private sector are stagnant.

Conservatism and accuracy do not go hand-in-hand.

Guy said at June 18, 2012 12:43 PM:

The degrees that pay the most have scarcity because the IQ required to pass the course curriculum excludes 90% of the population.

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