Our College STEM Problem Is An Elementary School Problem

A few times (for instance here in TIME or here in CSM with Kevin Carey or here TIME again ), I’ve written about what I see as a flaw with our STEM strategy as far as students are concerned: It’s mostly shutting the barn door after the horses are gone. What I mean by that is most STEM strategies are scholarships and other inducements that are meant to encourage students who can choose a STEM field to do so. In other words, you don’t want to do marketing, or business, or poetry, or whatever, you want to be a chemist or an engineer.

There is almost certainly marginal value to that. Some kid will say, well I can read literature in my free time, I can get paid if I study a STEM field instead. But there are two big problems:

  1. We’re largely rewarding people for choices they would have made anyway. This isn’t inherently a problem. I don’t lose any sleep, for instance, over a low-income kid getting their education paid for because they choose a STEM field even if they’ve wanted to be a scientist their whole life. But overall it’s an issue of policy design if the idea is to get more people to choose STEM.
  2. These polices are by design focused on people who can make this choice, so they’ve taken the right classes and been put in the fortunate situation to choose between studying various fields or STEM.

#2 was on my mind reading this new analysis from Tony Carnevale about what inequitable degree attainment costs and what addressing it might create. America’s competitive future is not going to be won by squeezing marginal gains out of already successful students. Some people just have no interest in STEM. Rather, it’s going to be won by expanding the pool of successful students (and immigration) because some percent of the students who never even get a chance to choose STEM would choose those disciplines. Some, of course, would instead choose poetry or law, and that’s great as well.

This is basically the same formula that worked for America in the 20th Century, a more inclusive version will work in a different 21st. That means a focus on better education for low-income students, and Black and Hispanic students. It’s a cliche, but true nonetheless, that some kid in rural Appalachia or one of our cities might be the one who figures out how to beat some cancer or develops a cleaner energy source.

That’s why an equity agenda – not equity in the way the word is increasingly being used in our sector but rather the idea of compensatory strategies aimed at equal opportunity – is so important. Our STEM problem is not fundamentally a problem of what choices high school juniors and seniors make. It’s a problem of what choices are made for 3rd and 4th-graders and what path they’re put on for middle and high school as a result. The STEM problem remains in so small part a problem of an education system that fails to deliver opportunity to too many kids. We’re not going to scholarship our way out of that. We must fix the pipeline.

Fixing the pipeline is the broader school improvement agenda, and as everyone should know by now it’s substantively and politically hard. But necessary.