It's fairly common to hear policy makers and industry leaders express concern over a growing lack of digital literacy, math and science skills that could rob the U.S. of its global competitiveness, economic health and dominant position in global innovation.
Reports cite the insufficient quantity of STEM (science, technology, education and math) graduates and a mediocre educational pipeline for those who are interested. The only answers, they reason, are to improve STEM educational systems and to more aggressively court foreign students and workers to fill this gap.
But a new report argues these claims are simply untrue: the U.S. is not falling behind other nations and its graduation rates are more than sufficient to fill the labor force's needs.
In the Oct. 29 report, "Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Work force Demand," authors Hal Salzman, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank, and Georgetown University professor B. Lindsay Lowell reviewed previous evidence and analyses of actual graduation rates and work force needs and found no support for these claims.
"I don't want to knock previous tests and reports. They're difficult topics and they are hard to tackle, but the conclusions don't support the interpretations they're given," Salzman told eWEEK.
Though the educational pipeline would benefit from improvements, the authors conclude, it is not as dysfunctional as originally suggested. For example, U.S. high school students test as well as or better than students two decades ago; large numbers of students with strong science and math backgrounds pursue degrees in these fields of studies; graduate schools have an ample pool of qualified four-year graduates to draw from, and many students who start along a path to science and engineering careers remain in those fields.
If there is a problem, the report reasons, it is not one of too few qualified science and engineering college graduates but, rather, the inability of science and engineering firms to attract those graduates. The pool of graduates with science and engineering degrees exceeds the number of science and engineering job openings each year, even though employers may not be as successful as they would like in attracting or retaining graduates into a science or engineering career.
"If there is a supply problem, it's not showing up in the numbers. But there's something in the job that isn't attracting qualified graduates into the field. What is [it] about these jobs that one-third of the Masters students don't pursue science and engineering careers?"