The Economics of Higher Education, Part 1: Science Is Hard

(Photo: Martin Lopatka)

If you are the sort of person who worries that the U.S. is not producing enough college graduates with science degrees, it’s worth wondering exactly why that is. In a new working paper (abstract; PDF), Ralph Stinebrickner and Todd R. Stinebrickner offer a compelling answer: science is hard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking advantage of unique longitudinal data, we provide the first characterization of what college students believe at the time of entrance about their final major, relate these beliefs to actual major outcomes, and, provide an understanding of why students hold the initial beliefs about majors that they do. The data collection and analysis are based directly on a conceptual model in which a student’s final major is best viewed as the end result of a learning process.  We find that students enter school quite optimistic/interested about obtaining a science degree, but that relatively few students end up graduating with a science degree.  The substantial overoptimism about completing a degree in science can be attributed largely to students beginning school with misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science.

Do we file this item under “overconfidence” or “good gatekeeping”?


The full paper is the PDF link on the page with the abstract...


Good gatekeeping. Having bad scientists is worse than having no scientists. Besides, if we change the requirements of what it takes to be a scientist (i.e., reduce the difficulty of the course), we will still find that position so desirable?


I believe that science is a vital part of our economy - and having scientists (along with experts in all sorts of other "difficult" disciplines) will be critical over the next 50-100 years to ensure that we in North America can continue to enjoy even a fraction of the quality of life that we now enjoy.

We must not reduce the requirements of what it takes to be a scientist, I believe we need to increase our expectations of how much work we must do, and how productive we must be as a workforce in order to maintain our quality of life.

We need to start viewing our "jobs" not as inconveniences but as a means for survival.

Eric M. Jones

Okay, so explain to me why learning something hard, which has little social rewards, requires constant re-education, gets derated by H1-B's and pays so little, is a great career path?

(p.s. I have a science degree, a bunch of patents, and am chronically unemployed. I advise any young student to get a business, finance or law degree and forget this S.T.E.M. nonsense.)


>> Okay, so explain to me why learning something hard, which has little social rewards, requires constant re-education, gets derated by H1-B’s and pays so little, is a great career path?

Maybe that's part of the problem. Science provides great potential for sky-high salaries if you can excel in your field, but it's a 'high-risk' investment. I can be a great career path, but it's dog eat dog ... certainly not for anyone expecting any sort of stability of job security regardless of your performance.

>> (p.s. I have a science degree, a bunch of patents, and am chronically unemployed. I advise any young student to get a business, finance or law degree and forget this S.T.E.M. nonsense.)

But, businesspeople, financiers, or lawyers do not "produce" anything. They manage, administer, or regulate the processes and output of scientists. This is not to suggest they that are not needed ... but if we (North America) are not producing anything, then there will be no need for businesspeople, financiers, or lawyers.



Took (and finished) an engineering degree in Canada. At an orientation session in our main lecture hall before our first class ... a prof stood in front of the auditorium and said "Say hi to the person on your left, then the person on your right. Only 1 of you will graduate." 1 in 3. He wasn't kidding. Some students quit part way through first year, some stuck it out a couple years and eventually gave up on their own terms, and many were kicked out because they simply couldn't handle it.
I won't even bother to try to filter this for political correctness. It is a simple, inarguable fact that in many of my classes of 200+ students, there were fewer than 10 Caucasians. Many were second/third generation immigrants, however a very large number were international students. So, many of the graduates from North American schools aren't even North Americans.
Now, working in the hi-tech industry, I see first hand that entire departments of North American hi-tech companies are being outsourced overseas. As a customer-facing engineer - I am often working with other engineers overseas. Most of which who are equally competent or far more competent that any engineer working here - but working for a small fraction of the paycheque.



And careful ... no superiority complex here or anything like that. It was damn hard and I had a t0ugh time, myself. Life is hard and I don't believe that our life will get any easier over the next 50-100 years, I believe that our society has a long way to go to realize and accept that.


I wish other degrees had this same degree of difficulty. I think it would take the entitlement feeling out of "earning" a degree.

I see alot of people post about how their (usually business) degree is worthless because they can't find a job, when in reality they probably should have been weeded out of the program Freshman year or earlier.


For me personally, I got 2 years into a physics degree and ended up getting math and statistics degrees. I am not sure if that still counts as getting a science degree, but the reason I changed majors did not have to do with physics being too hard. It was just that I didn't enjoy it as much as I was used to. I would caution against concluding that people changing out of science majors necessarily due to being too difficult.


"Do we file this item under “overconfidence” or “good gatekeeping”?"

Neither. "Bad Gatekeeping."

The hardest bit about science ins't the math, it's the culture. In my 10 years in the academy I saw a steady stream of outstanding students driven towards other fields who didn't share my cultural background.

It was horrifying to watch the the amount of talent our society lost because the people in charge were human, and therefore had a subtle but pervasive preference being around people they felt comfortable with -- people who shared a cultural background. My father is also a college professor, so I fit right in. Latasha did not.

That said, at least 90% of any population doesn't have the cognitive and emotional framework to excel in a STEM field, so some sort of gatekeeping is required. I


I have to challenge your "culture" explanation, on several grounds. First, why do those cultural difference problems seem to apply to people from only one (or perhaps a few) particular cultures? Are the adjustments any harder for than for someone from the backwoods of America, rural China, or a remote tribe in New Guinea? (Those are respectively me, my former girlfriend, and a classmate.) As someone pointed out above, in STEM mainstream Caucasian Americans are a minority.

Second, STEM is really not that much of a social thing, which is partly why it appeals to so many of us who are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Being able to do good work usually trumps sociability.


I think a big reason for the change in major is experience. Not so much difficulty or overconfidence. College opens up a world of educational opportunities the average high school student never experience. For example, I had never heard of Sociology entering college. I did not know what Poly sci really meant or international relations. Every US high school student took classes in science, Math, English, probably language and some extra-curriculurs. A couple of weeks or months at college and all of a sudden a new world of opportunities emerge.


I would suggest a third explanation. Poor preparation in secondary schooling. In the US students typically study only one science at a time even in high school, and so when they start college they are actually studying basic material that in most other countries would be taught to 15-16 year-olds. No wonder they have false expectations, the fundamentals that should have been taught over 4-5 years before college now have to be rushed in their first two years of college. When the student compares the effort required for just a mediocre grade to the easy A's available in many other subjects then it can't be any surprise when they choose a non-science major.


I'd throw in a 4th reason. Spending all your time in the library has an adverse effect on the "college experience". College is pitched as a place to meet other young people and explore the world and relationships and what it means to be an adult. To this end, schools have spent tons of money on nice facilities for anything that's not education: gyms, cafeterias, dorms, etc.

Committing to a rigorous major means removing yourself from a wide range of other things you could be doing with your time at school. I think it's perfectly understandable that so few students choose to sacrifice fun times in college to study an in-demand field.