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Instead of Pushing Students Toward Science, We Should Push Politicians Towards Econ

My second blog of what we're calling "Education Week" in Patch Towers is going to be about the recent push toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) majors.

My second blog of what we're calling "Education Week" in Patch Towers is going to be about the recent push toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) majors. Specifically, Gov. McDonnell and other prominent politicians have been singing the praises of these majors and proposing that our colleges try to encourage more students to take on these majors. (See: http://www.bobmcdonnell.com/index.php/press_releases/details/mcdonnell_put_virginia_first/)Of course there are a couple of major problems with this that would be solved by a simple economics class: specifically by revisiting the law of supply and demand.

Before pursuing the main line of my post today, I would like to point out that virtually no one working in the Governor's Office right now has a degree in any of these fields, and that all of these people (including the Governor himself) have managed to find gainful employment. I would also like to point out that I have no hard data on this statement, but I'd be shocked if the majority of people in his office had degrees in something other than political science, law, economics, or other members of the humanities/social sciences that often are the subject of ridicule from politicians. But that's beside the point. 

Back to the law of supply and demand. Basically the idea here is that as supply for something increases, the demand decreases. Subsequently, the commodity in question becomes less valuable and commands a lower price on the open market. The problem is that the logic behind the Governor's STEM initiative is that STEM majors get "good" jobs: ones that are in demand and where employees are able to command higher wages. A big part of this is precisely because the relevant training and relevant skills are so rare, and employees with rare skills are able to sell their services for more money because demand outstrips supply. However, if we increase the number of STEM majors, these fields will become over-supplied, the demand will decrease, and these jobs will no longer be among the highest paying jobs in our country. It's a simple proposition, yet it's one that people pushing STEM haven't considered. 

There's a second major problem here: most people I know aren't good at math. If you don't believe me, test my theory. Next time you go to dinner with a big group, ask everyone at the table to calculate a 15% tip without using various iPhone apps or a calculator. If your friends are anything like mine, they will fail at this task which is far beneath the level needed by a STEM graduate. But if you hang out with people who can do simple mental math, have them take the "unit circle quiz" at http://www.purposegames.com/game/unit-circle-quiz  

The point of this is that it's not as if there are thousands of students who are capable of going into STEM majors but are choosing not to. And in fact, many of your humanities/social science majors selected into those majors because they were not good at math and wanted to avoid taking any more math classes than absolutely necessary in college. Students who excel in these areas typically pursue them. Students who wouldn't excel in them avoid them in favor of other pursuits. We're pumping as much water as we can out of this well, and any money and resources we devote to this won't help us find more water. 

We should certainly make students aware of the consequences of their educational choices. Students need to know what the typical career path in their chosen major is, and they need to be realistic about their chances. This is difficult for 18-22 year olds, and we need to devote resources to this if for no other reason than to help students make informed decisions about student loans. But both parties should realize that students should be free to make their own decisions as long as they have the relevant information. Conservatives should embrace market principles and realize that government interference in this market is the opposite of what we should want, and that artificially increasing supply will diminish salaries. And liberals should embrace the idea that students should be free to make their own choices and education is more than just about finding a job. But whatever your political persuasion, increasing STEM graduates makes a great talking point but ultimately fails under examination.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

jon hoffman August 06, 2012 at 12:58 PM
You are looking at this issue domestically, excluding the global market for STEM related careers. The number of STEM graduates is increasing in the rest of the world, which is pushing innovation in those fields to locate in Asia, India, or anywhere else but here. The idea behind pushing and partially subsidizing the movement of students into these fields is to provide domestic innovation companies with the qualified work force to keep their operations US based, and return the US to its former location as the premier engineering and general scientific hub in the world. I would have pursued a math or science degree if those fields were stressed in my schooling. Instead, it was looked at as something to "get past", so that I never had to do it again. That can easily be changed with quality science and math teachers, who can make the subject matter exciting to new students.
Arnold Smithson August 06, 2012 at 02:08 PM
I'm not sure that reason jobs are re-locating to Asia and India is a lack of STEM graduates here. Asia's best and brightest come here for college (and even more frequently grad school) in those fields - take a look at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and really any of the other UC's. I'm not sure that the innovation is happening in India, although a lot of the major scientific discoveries seem to happen over in Europe. The reasons behind that are probably more political than supply-side though. But I do agree that we need better teachers at the lower levels. My grade school teachers hated math, didn't really understand it, and avoided teaching it like the plague. We had daily poetry/short story writing assignments, but somehow we'd run out of time before we got to our math lessons at least a couple of times a week. I don't mean this as an attack on teachers. There are plenty of good teachers out there who want to do well but are handcuffed by Richmond and DC, and more troublingly can't make any real progress because the kids come from families that don't care about education. But we can't neglect math and science education at the primary and secondary levels, funnel a bunch of money toward STEM in our universities and think that somehow this will change things. It's a huge waste of our tax dollars and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of education.
jon hoffman August 06, 2012 at 03:36 PM
I'm saying that VC and international companies that would otherwise spend their resources in the American market are unable to do so because of a lack of qualified applicants. The drive for STEM funding is also an effort to further transform the economy from manufacturing, to services, and now finally to innovation and highly valued added sectors.
Elizabeth Talbot August 06, 2012 at 07:22 PM
In the past, the government stimulated demand for scientists/engineers through programs like NASA/Defense. Now we hear of nothing except "fiscal cliffs" and "austerity." Companies don't appear to have large research and development budgets anymore and academia, I imagine, is difficult to get into. If the government is unwilling to fund the programs that used to employ many scientist and engineers, why is it urging students to go into these professions?

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