Why the S in STEM Is Overrated

Government and college officials love to sing the praises of scientists. How do they explain why so many young science majors are so poorly paid?
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Do we really need more science grads?

It’s an easy question to answer for politicians, university officials, conference speakers, and just about anybody whose job is to talk about American competitiveness for money. It’s rote that we need more STEM students – more science, technology, engineering and math grads – sprinting off American campuses into the labor force. But according to the data, employers don’t like paying science grads quite as much as we like talking about them.

Is STEM one letter too long?

Wage data in several states show that employers are paying more -- often far more -- for techies (i.e.: computer science majors), engineers, and math grads. But no evidence suggests that biology majors, the most popular science field of study, earn a wage premium. Chemistry graduates earn somewhat more than biology grads, but still don’t command the wages that are quite TEM-quality.

This conclusion is based on detailed information from Texas, Colorado and Virginia. All three states have linked data about graduate programs with wage data from their unemployment insurance systems through College Measures. Very important to note upfront is that these wages are early career earnings. Many science students go on to medical school or continue with doctoral studies. Biology majors that go on to become, for example, anesthesiologists will be very rich, indeed. But the number of advanced degrees in these fields is dwarfed by the flood of science bachelor's (and associate's and master's degrees).

The data from these states show that while students in technology, engineering and math earn more, on average, than other students, graduates in the “S” fields in STEM do not. Wages are a key signal of demand for workers. If science majors are in such high demand, it is odd that they are so poorly rewarded for their skills.

Searching for the S-Premium

We turn first to Texas, where a graduate with an associate’s degree in a common non-STEM field, sociology, has an average salary of $21,000. There is a substantial wage premium for graduates with two-year degrees in computer and information sciences ($30,000) and in mechanical engineering ($32,000). But biology grads average only $17,000 and chemistry graduates only $18,000 -- below sociology majors.

At the bachelor’s level, it's the same story. Texas graduates in mechanical engineering earn an average $74,000, and computer science and math grads earn about $50k or more. In contrast, biology majors earn about half as much as the TEMs and less, on average, than graduates in English ($32,000), sociology ($33,000) or psychology ($29,000). Chemistry majors don't do much better.

Texas is not a fluke. In Virginia, at the bachelor’s level, graduates in engineering and computer sciences, on average, earn over $50,000, followed by math majors ($37,000). But the wages of chemistry grads ($31,000) is only slightly higher than sociologists, psychologists, or English language majors. Biology grads earn less than all three majors.

We could go through the same story with Colorado, but you get the point. We can see a TEM-premium. We cannot see an S-premium.

Big TEM

Why do these numbers even matter? you might ask. Shouldn't we want more curious students to push the boundaries of science?

Of course we should. And we do. But it's a question of facts, fiction, and signaling. Students who have been bombarded by the rhetoric invoking the critical importance of STEM education might assume that majoring in any STEM field will lead to better wages. And state policy makers may rush to invest more money in STEM education because of the perceived demand for those workers.

Teenagers with their hearts set on science should major in science. But everyone -- particularly marginal students with debt -- should know the data. There is a TEM premium across these three states. But biology majors (the most popular science degree) in Virginia and Texas are paid about the same as English or sociology majors in their early years. Where we can measure chemistry graduates’ degrees, they also tend to lag students in technology, engineering and math.

Most employers aren’t looking for STEM. They’re looking for TEM.

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Mark Schneider is the president of College Measures and a vice-president at the American Institutes for Research.

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