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Yes, STEM majors should be prioritized

In the increasingly technology driven innovation world of today, our nation is losing its competitive edge to countries like China, India and Brazil who are far outpacing the United States in terms of the number of college graduates majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). According to the U.S. Education Dashboard, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees with STEM majors in the United States was lower in 2008–09 (24.2 percent) than it was in 1998–99 (25.6 percent).  A report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology says that if the United States is to maintain our global competiveness, we will need to increase the number of students with STEM degrees by 34% annually over current rates. A report from Accenture in July 2012, estimated that in China over 40% of college graduates had STEM degrees while the figure was even higher at 50% in Singapore. The report also goes on to predict that by 2016, Brazil will produce more engineering Ph.D.s than the United States each year.

A recent study by Georgetown University finds that “Following architecture with the highest unemployment rates are non-technical majors, such as the arts (11.1%), humanities and liberal arts (9.4%) and social science (8.1%). In the humanities and liberal arts alone, unemployment is the highest among English, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Anthropology and U.S. History majors.” Obviously, there is a skill mismatch between the graduates we produce and what the industry needs today.

To meet the shortage, Congress has established programs like the H1B visa to import critical skills. Yet, these are band aid solutions and cannot replace the value we will gain as a nation from having a stable pipeline of native STEM talent.

College tuition and shrinking government college aid programs are hurting the ability of middle class families to send their kids to college to graduate in these disciplines. We currently disburse our precious college aid regardless of the chosen discipline. We do not differentiate STEM majors who are more critically needed from majors in Liberal Arts. It is time to target our aid dollars just to STEM majors so that we get better returns on our investment in areas critical to our  national interests.

A task force created by the Governor in Florida recommends a novel approach—that universities freeze tuition rates for three years for STEM degrees while increasing the tuition for other non-critical majors like psychology, political science, anthropology, and performing arts because they have fewer job prospects in the state of Florida. This could serve as a national model where we target our educational subsidies to those majors that are deemed in short supply or critical to maintain our global competiveness.

If we do not address the STEM crisis, our corporations will be forced to create jobs where the talent is in abundant supply, and that will not be in the United States. This is a matter of ensuring our economic national security.

Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.

No, STEM majors should not be prioritized     

Find a job you love and you will never work a day, so the saying goes.  When I immigrated to the United States, the career choices in India were limited to Engineering, Medicine or Commerce.  Everything else was regarded as untenable.  It seems today in America we seem to be trending similarly.

Monthly Labor Review published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in May 2011 did a comprehensive analysis of STEM (science technology engineering and math) jobs in 2009.  In all, 97 different STEM based occupations were identified spanning the gamut from Pharmacist to Bio-physicist to Computer Programmers. The average annual income of these jobs was a whopping $77,880 compared to $43,460 for all jobs.

Yet another study by the U.S. Department of Commerce projects a growth rate in STEM employment that is twice that of non-STEM employment. That’s the good news. The reality is that only 6% of the jobs are based on STEM.  Of the hundreds of geographical areas surveyed by BLS only six locations including the Bay Area had greater than 15% STEM related employment. There is no question that the growth of the U.S. economy and the world economy depends on fundamental discoveries in science and technology.  But the statistics paint a reality where a vast majority of employment is of the non-STEM category and will continue to be.

While it is important to encourage STEM education, it is critical to not ignore the other non-science and technology based education.

Non-STEM employment pays less and will probably continue to do so. Education policy needs to address this paradigm in a sane manner.  A gifted pianist is no less important than a gifted engineer.

A particularly odious idea from Governor Rick Scott of Florida is to subsidize STEM education with the non-science majors paying for it with increased fees.  So not only are the salaries for non-science graduates lower, they will have to pay more to get the degree! This policy is narrow minded, un-imaginative and projects a zero-sum thinking that must be rejected.

A balanced approach is needed where the costs of receiving a college education is addressed especially for non-science majors commensurate with the expected salary following these degrees. Coaxing students to adopt STEM degrees could be as counter-productive as asking an engineer to master painting. It is much better to encourage science and math education at the elementary level so that an analytical basis is established for the arts disciplines.

There are many successful people in public life who are not trained in math and science.  Artists, writers, entertainers, politicians, business and religious leaders add great value to society without solving differential equations.  The last engineer who was President of the United States was Herbert Hoover.

Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.