STEM Degrees Not Worth Effort, Money

Joe Guzzardi
January 16, 2024

Little by little, the truth about academic life on university campuses is leaking out. Although not as dramatic or headline-grabbing as the Harvard, Penn, and MIT scandals, the myth that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees will lead to a well-paid, white-collar job is gradually being debunked.

In his Los Angeles Times opinion commentary, U.C. San Diego sociology professor and author of Wasted Education: How We Fail Our Graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, John D. Skrentny, exposed a STEM degree’s true worth in the employment market---considerably less than advertised, and perhaps not worth the monies spent on exorbitant tuition fees.

Long-hyped as a path to a big-ticket IT job, and with employers and the federal government’s tacit endorsement that helped promote more foreign-born labor to displace U.S. workers, STEM classes popularity soared. Another carrot that encouraged young adults to enroll: the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that STEM jobs would increase 8 percent by 2029 compared with 3.7 for all other occupations. From 2006 to 2015, bachelor’s degrees in the STEM fields rose from 22 percent of the baccalaureate degrees awarded to 30 percent of the total, the highest level since 1987 when detailed national record-keeping began.

But the Census Bureau’s June 2021 report refuted the popular narrative. STEM degrees don’t guarantee a coveted job in the prestigious science, technology, engineering and math fields. Among the 50 million employed college graduates ages 25 to 64 in 2019, 37% earned a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering but only 14% worked in a STEM occupation. Moreover, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in its 2023 analysis, found that STEM degrees held by diverse graduates hardly moved the needle. Despite corporations’ vocal commitment to DEI, black, Hispanic, American Indian, and disabled persons remain dramatically under-represented in tech.

Although warnings about pro-STEM fallacies have been reported for at least a decade, they’ve fallen on deaf ears. Forbes journalist and Duke University School of Law J.D. George Leef wrote in 2014:

     “Interest groups that want more STEM education, research funding and workers know how to capitalize on that belief to get politicians to enact the policies they want. Even through there is nothing approaching a [labor shortage] crisis, they keep lobbying as if we have a dire one...Strong business and educational groups lobby for nice-sounding policies that benefit themselves, frequently employing dubious arguments and misleading claims. The costs of the resulting pro-STEM policies are dispersed among the public, and fall particularly hard on the unfortunate individuals who invest a lot of money and years of their lives in pursuit of credentials that are apt to become almost worthless."  ("True Or False: America Desperately Needs More STEM Workers," by George Leef, Forbes, June 10, 2014.)