Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Do We Have More Science and Engineering Graduates Than We Need?

Andrew Hacker seems to have a problem with technical education.  He once famously—or infamously if you prefer—wrote an article criticizing the imposition of mathematics on students who find it difficult.  In a New York Times article, Is Algebra Necessary, he took educators, parents, and the rest of the world to task for making algebra a required course when it was unnecessary for the vast majority of people and caused numerous people to fail who would have done just fine without it.

“A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.”

“This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.”

“The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.”

Earlier, he coauthored a book with Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It.  The book contained a number of noteworthy observations and several interesting recommendations.  However, it also incorporated a rather curious view of what higher education should consist of.

“The very phrase liberal arts induces hushed respect.  In an era when bachelor’s degrees are awarded in sports management and fashion merchandising, hearing of students who are majoring in philosophy and history still evokes our esteem.  The liberal arts may be viewed as a classical education and an intellectual adventure, as learning for its own sake and pursuing the life of the mind.  The most admired purlieus of higher education are its liberal arts colleges, which generally enroll only undergraduates and eschew vocational programs.”

They then take this ancient and highly suspect opinion and couple it with this sage advice.

“We’d even hazard that twenty-one or twenty-two, the usual ages of college graduation, may be too early to decide that dentistry or resource management is the career for you.  The best thing after receiving a bachelor’s degree may be to find a semi-skilled job—Best Buy or Old Navy?—and keep your eyes and mind open about career choices.”

And which are these lesser schools that have refused to “eschew vocational programs?”  They would include places like MIT which actually stoops to training people to labor as engineers.

“In fact, vocational training has long been entrenched in America’s colleges.  Even now, more students at MIT major in engineering than the sciences.”

So—MIT is a vocational school, and science is an art while engineering is a mere craft.  How quaint.  Hacker would prefer that students who want to learn how to build the new bridges and dams that we need, or the smarter, more efficient electrical grid our society demands, should forego that for four years (plus two years at Best Buy) and spend their time learning why ancient philosophers didn’t know what they were talking about.

Hacker has returned to address technical education again in an article published in The New York Review of Books: The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent.  His concern here is that there is a persistent public clamor demanding that we produce more graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or else dire consequences will follow.

“Pronouncements like the following have become common currency: ‘The United States is falling behind in a global “race for talent” that will determine the country’s future prosperity, power, and security’.”

Hacker allows that there are a number of indicators that can be used to support such conclusions.

“The United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.”

He then claims that the data on employment of STEM graduates is inconsistent with the presumed high demand.  There are already more graduates being produced than the number of jobs available.

“A 2014 study by the National Science Board found that of 19.5 million holders of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only 5.4 million were working in those fields, and a good question is what they do instead.”

The source of that data can be found here.  This is what the report actually says:

“In 2010, estimates of the size of the U.S. S&E workforce ranged from approximately 5 million to more than 19 million depending on the definition used.”

“The application of S&E knowledge and skills is widespread across the U.S. economy and not just limited to S&E occupations.  The number of college-educated individuals reporting that their jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree level of technical expertise in one or more S&E fields (16.5 million) is significantly higher than the number in occupations with formal S&E titles (5.4 million).”

The latter statement is quite inconsistent with the conclusion drawn by Hacker.

Hacker turned to another source for corroborating data.

“The Center for Economic Policy and Research, tracing graduates from 2010 through 2014, discovered that 28 percent of engineers and 38 percent of computer scientists were either unemployed or holding jobs that did not need their training.”

That data was contained in the report A College Degree is No Guarantee by Janelle Jones and John Schmitt.  These authors were studying the differences in educational outcomes for black degree holders as compared to the population as a whole.  In the process they produced some interesting data on what happens to recent college graduates.  Consider the chart below from which Hacker presumably extracted his numbers.

The period studied was 2010-2012, and the criterion was a job requiring a degree of any kind versus one which did not require a degree.  Engineering is actually at the top of the list in terms of placing graduates in degree-requiring jobs.  If we were to accept the engineering data as indicative of a field producing too many graduates, what should we conclude about Hacker’s beloved liberal arts degree—or any college degree at all?

Hacker also uses Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections of job demands over the period 2012-2022 to point out that STEM occupations are mostly expected to grow more slowly in number than employment as a whole.  But what exactly does that mean?  BLS defines mechanical engineering, for example, as a field requiring a bachelor of science (BS).  As in most fields as they mature, entry-level skills are being computerized while the requirement of an advanced degree grows.  Fewer, but more highly-trained people are in demand.  The importance of expertise in a field may be growing while the number of jobs is decreasing.  What does one do with that insight?  Can one insure a required number of doctorates will be produced by discouraging students from entering the field at the BS level?

The number of STEM-designated jobs required may be an ill-defined quantity, but doesn’t the same concern apply to all fields of study?  Couldn’t one argue that there is a glut of liberal arts majors so someone should write an article discouraging that pursuit?  STEM-related degrees appear to be better than most at preparing students for an uncertain future—so quit complaining.

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