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See Inside February 2012

U.S. Science Degrees Are Up

Female students, and management dreams, are changing the mix

Private firms may be experiencing a shortage of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, but it’s not for a lack of students. For many STEM disciplines, more undergraduate degrees are being awarded now than 10 or 20 years ago. More women are entering college, which in turn is changing the relative popularity of disciplines.

Some specific trends worth noting:

  • Women undergraduates, growing in number faster than men, tend to take psychology and biology over physics or math.
  • Women generally account for strong numbers in the arts.
  • Foreign students, who often seek the physical sciences, temporarily decreased after the 9/11 attacks because of changes in visa rules.
  • The dot-com boom in the late 1990s caused a run-up in computer and electrical engineering enrollment (with degrees four years later), but interest fell after the dot-com bust.
  • Students view business degrees as the surest bet for finding a job and paying off college loans.

So what’s behind the worker shortfall? Although the number of graduates and job openings match up fairly well, people with STEM degrees often choose jobs in other fields that pay more or have higher perceived status. “Biology students become doctors; math majors go into finance,” says Nicole Smith, senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Others get M.B.A.s so they can take higher-salaried management positions, which makes it easier to pay off ever rising student debt.

For additional commentary read:
How to Make Science and Tech Jobs More Enticing to Undergrads

Graphic by Nathan Yau

This article was published in print as "How Science Degrees Stack Up."

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