Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Earnings Lost by Opting Out of STEM -- updated 6/27

Yesterday (25 June 2012), the online editions of Inside Higher Education and the The Chronicle of Higher Education posted articles that called their readers' attention to a recently published research report, "The Earnings Benefits of Majoring in STEM Fields Among High Achieving Minority Students" by Tatiana Melguizo and Gregory C. Wolniak (Research in Higher Education, Volume 53, Number 4, 2012).

I strongly urge the readers of this blog to read this important report. Skim or skip the authors' extensive descriptions of their sophisticated statistical methodologies and focus on their data, findings, and recommendations (which they call "implications"). To help get you started, I offer my own brief summary as an alternative to the reviews by Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle.

Summary of Findings
The report presents the results of the authors' efforts to answer two questions:
  • How much more did high achieving minority students who were science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors earn in their first jobs after graduation than high achieving minority students who were not STEM majors?
  • How much more did high achieving minority STEM students earn if their first jobs were directly related to STEM vs those whose jobs were not directly related to STEM?
Compared to what? Compared to a wide range of other non-STEM majors, but especially to students who were humanities and education majors, and across a wide range of non-STEM jobs.  The authors call the alignment of college majors to the skills required by jobs taken within a few years after graduation the "congruence" between  major fields  and first jobs. So they also answered a more general third question:
  • For each major field of study (including STEM), how much more was earned by students who took congruent jobs than students who took jobs that were not congruent to their major field of study?
Few readers will be surprised to learn that the authors found that STEM majors enjoyed higher salaries than non-STEM majors in their first jobs; that for all majors, most students who took jobs that were congruent with their majors earned higher salaries than those who didn't; and that STEM graduates who took STEM-related jobs earned higher salaries than those who took non-STEM jobs.

But most readers will probably be surprised that the authors found such large differences in the average earnings they found in answer to each of these questions:
  • STEM grads earned $48,856 per year, whereas humanities and education majors only earned $31,236 per year.
  • Black graduates earned $35,900 per year, which is considerably less than than the $42,180 earned by Latino graduates .
  • Black STEM graduates earned $39,365 per year, which is substantially less than the $56,875 per year earned by Latino STEM graduates.
  • Interestingly, black education graduates earned $39,537 per year, which is considerably more than the $27,253 earned by Latino education graduates ... but well below the $48,856 earned by all STEM graduates and further below the $56,875 earned by Latino STEM graduates.
However, the reader's disappointment may be tempered by the authors' preliminary findings that earnings gaps were related to the fact that a larger percentage of black STEM students took non-congruent first jobs than Latino STEM students. Given their overall finding that congruent first jobs usually paid higher salaries than non-congruent jobs, the lower average salaries earned by black STEM students is not surprising after all ... but it raises the question: "Why did so many black STEM majors take non-STEM jobs so early in their careers?" Or to use the term favored by another researcher, "Why did so many high achieving black students 'opt out' of STEM right after they graduated?"

Who Were These High Achieving Minority Students?
The authors analyzed the records of a weighted sample of 1,067 black, Latino, and Asian Pacific Island students who had applied to the Gates Foundation's Millennium Program for scholarships in 2000. Some were accepted into the program; others weren't; but both groups had grades, SAT scores, and other characteristics that marked them as high achievers. In addition to STEM, the students also majored in the social sciences, humanities, education, and professional fields.

Other Studies
Three other recent studies are related to this one:
Whereas "Earnings Benefits" addressed the decisions of high achieving black students to change from STEM to non-STEM fields after they graduated, these other studies considered the decisions by high achieving black students to change majors from STEM to non-STEM before they graduated:

"After Enrollment" found that changing majors raised the GPAs of the black students; whereas Opting Out focused on why the black students switched to non-STEM majors. Taken together, these three studies indicate that opting out of STEM either before or after graduation is a substantial phenomenon that needs to be reversed as soon as possible.
  • The authors of "After Enrollment" are perplexed by the decisions of so many black students to accept lower paying job offers, so they suggest that follow-up qualitative studies be done to explore why the students made such financially incorrect career choices.
  • The authors of "After Enrollment" imply that the black students switched out of STEM in order to improve their GPAs ... which is a rational decision in the short run, but as shown by "After Enrollment", it undermines the students' subsequent earnings potentials.
  • The author of Opting Out conducted the kind of qualitative study advocated by the authors of "Earnings Benefits." She found that black students switched majors in large part because of their perception of racism in STEM fields where there are still relatively few blacks. Faced with this "stereotype threat" -- the anxiety caused by the expectation of being judged based on a negative group stereotype -- many black students dropped out STEM majors and changed to "racialized" fields, her term for fields wherein there are already a substantial number of black professionals and therefore substantially less racism.
  • The author of Opting Out also co-authored "Why They Leave" -- a statistical analysis of the the impact of stereotype threat on the decisions of women and minority students to drop out of STEM majors based on the responses of nearly 4,000 students to the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF).
  • As noted earlier, the "Earnings Benefits" study found that black education graduates earned considerably more than Latino education graduates. This would be consistent with the possibility that some well-prepared black students opted out of STEM in favor of education, a racialized field, or chose education as their major without considering STEM.
As with the previous notes on this subject that I have posted on this blog, full disclosure once again requires that I acknowledge that I am the very proud Daddy of Dr. Maya A. Beasley, the author of Opting Out and co-author of "Why They Leave." And, as before, I also voice my profound frustration with her findings. 

Yes, racism still exists and it may still exist fifty or even one hundred years from now, but so what? Why is it that highly gifted black athletes in the  NBA, NFL, and MLB had the guts to persevere in the face of the crudest racism to become superstars in the world's most highly competitive sports, whereas highly gifted black STEM scholars don't have the courage to win Nobel Prizes? 

We cheered Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens and Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson and Arther Ash and Tiger Woods. Is it possible that when we en-couraged their courage, it strengthened their resolve to persevere?. If so, then why are we now saying "There, there, poor baby. Did that mean white Dr. STEM-y hurt your feelings when he looked at you funny and muttered the N-word?"

Why aren't we en-couraging our young black scholars to be more courageous? Why aren't we celebrating their victories and strengthening their resolve to persevere in the presence of racism? As Dr. DuBois correctly observed, a people's progress is driven by the achievements of its best and brightest, its "Talented Tenth." 

The authors of "Earnings Benefits" have made an important contribution by putting dollar figures on the benefits gained or lost by the decisions of our  Talented Tenth to opt in or to opt out of STEM, benefits or losses that will be compounded by the proportional pay raises they receive or don't receive in subsequent decades.

Related notes: