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College Major Myths

STEM majors make a smooth transition to well-paying jobs, but the earning power of other majors catches up quickly
College Major Myths

Anyone studying the humanities probably has a story of someone raising a skeptical eyebrow and asking: “What do you plan to do with that?” Students who major in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, however, are usually congratulated on choosing a dependable, lucrative path. But that perception might be overly simplistic, according to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

STEM majors do have a smoother exit ramp from college to career, the paper finds. But, while STEM majors earn more than their peers in their early 20s, the advantage soon begins to fade. In the first decade of their careers, the peers who majored in other subjects start catching up. Overall, STEM majors — specifically, in applied fields, like computer science or engineering, rather than “pure” sciences, like biology and chemistry — have flatter earnings over the course of their careers than those who studied other subjects.

That’s because, contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a shortage of STEM workers, say the paper’s authors, David Deming and Kadeem Noray. In fact, there’s a shortage of STEM skills. The know-how that makes STEM majors so competitive when they first enter the job market quickly becomes outdated as STEM jobs change rapidly, according to Deming and Noray's analysis. While some are promoted to management roles, many STEM majors end up leaving STEM occupations as their skills become obsolete and wage growth flattens.

The findings suggest that students shouldn't choose a STEM major or career for money alone. “Look at the long term when you’re choosing what to study. People who major in subjects like history or political science don’t get first jobs that are as lucrative, but they catch up a lot," says Deming.

In order for people with STEM majors to keep their edge, they have to invest in continuing education or work for companies willing to make that investment for them, the authors report.

The findings don’t necessarily mean that STEM is overrated, says Deming, an education economist on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Kennedy School. Instead, they suggest that students shouldn’t choose a STEM major or career for money alone.

“Look at the long term when you’re choosing what to study,” he says. “People who major in subjects like history or political science don’t get first jobs that are as lucrative, but they catch up a lot. The trade-off is the uncertain path to a first job, and that can be terrifying.”

STEM has been a darling of policymakers and the education world in recent years, and humanities sometimes the bear, with K–12 schools across the country sticking “STEM” into their names. In 2015, President Barack Obama earmarked more than $240 million for STEM education, and policymakers and business leaders often bemoan a dearth of STEM workers. At times, the accent on STEM and its applicability to the job market has cast the humanities and other fields in a negative light. In 2012, members of Congress pushed to eliminate federal funding for research in political science, in large part because it isn’t seen as directly applicable to the job market. Similar conversations have occurred in state legislatures across the country.

But it shouldn’t be an either/or, Deming says. People can benefit — financially and otherwise — from many fields of study.

“Let people choose what’s most interesting and what’s most valuable to them,” he says.

STEM and the Career Path

  • More than half of STEM majors end up in non-STEM jobs.
  • STEM jobs, and the skills required for them, change very quickly — meaning that success in STEM fields requires continuing education, post-college.
  • The return of an applied STEM major — like computer science or engineering — starts out high relative to other majors, but drops by more than 50 percent in the first decade of working life. In other words, people who studied other fields start catching up.

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