The number of natural science and engineering degrees has been growing.

National Science Foundation

The number of natural science and engineering degrees has been growing.

Data check: U.S. producing more STEM graduates even without proposed initiatives

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The United States appears to be on pace to meet the Obama administration’s goal of churning out more college graduates in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

That conclusion, based on an analysis by ScienceInsider of recent education statistics, may surprise many people. And it is unlikely to cause scientific organizations to hold a ticker tape parade or the White House to issue a self-congratulatory press release.

That’s because the growth has occurred despite the failure of Congress to approve most of the new programs and hefty federal investments recommended by high-profile panels and requested by the White House. The news also comes with a caveat: The goal has been a moving target, and the total includes those with a 2-year degree. So some may take issue with the analysis that follows.

U.S. academic and business leaders have long argued that the country needs a larger tech-savvy workforce to maximize economic growth. The current campaign began in earnest in 2005 when a coalition of pro-research organizations issued a report titled Tapping America’s Potential (TAP). It called for a doubling, by 2015, of the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded annually by U.S. institutions.

The doubling would mean an increase from 200,000 a year to 400,000, the report explains. Curiously, it chose 2001 as its baseline year—meaning the decadal doubling would actually occur over 14 years (remedial math, anyone?). If the number rose at a steady pace, by 2015 there would be 1.1 million more STEM graduates than would have been the case under previous production levels.

Six months later, a prestigious panel assembled by the National Academies warned Congress that retaining U.S. global competitiveness would require more and better STEM teachers. Its report, called Rising Above the Gathering Storm (RAGS), resulted in a 2007 law that promised to augment STEM teacher training (as well as double research funding in the physical sciences). Congress didn’t keep its promise, however. And RAGS didn’t address whether additional STEM-trained workers were needed, although it said that the 10,000 additional elementary and secondary school STEM teachers that would be trained would touch “10 million minds.”

The Obama administration saw a link, however, and its President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued two related reports that, together, recommended increasing both the number of STEM teachers and the number of STEM graduates. In particular, its 2012 report, Engage to Excel, called for producing “one million additional college graduates with bachelor or associate degrees in STEM fields” over the next decade.

For PCAST, the clock started in 2010, when the number of such graduates stood at 300,000. President Barack Obama has cited the reports frequently in lobbying Congress for increasing federal investments in STEM education, including a mention in his 2011 State of the Union address of the need for more STEM teachers.

Neither the PCAST report nor the TAP report explains how or why it chose a particular number of additional STEM graduates as a goal. And both reports are supply-driven rather than demand-driven; that is, they address the production of STEM graduates but not the likelihood of their finding good jobs. That’s a sore point for those who argue that the nation is actually producing too many graduates in many STEM fields, which keeps wages low and creates underemployment.

Leaving aside those points, however, an analysis of data compiled by the National Science Foundation (NSF) shows strong evidence of the desired growth despite the general lack of action on the reports. Specifically, the number of degrees awarded annually in the natural sciences and engineering—NSF’s equivalent of what is normally defined as a STEM field—grew from 241,000 in 2000 to 355,000 in 2012 (see graph). In absolute terms, the 2012 figure is 114,000 more than the 2000 figure. Even if that number grows no larger for the rest of the decade—an extremely conservative estimate, most would say—the additional number of STEM graduates in the overall workforce would exceed the 1 million goal set explicitly by the PCAST report and implicitly by TAP.

(Those who think the augmented number of graduates should be based on a strict 10-year span may want to start with the 263,000 STEM graduates produced in 2002. Using that base year, the size of the expanded pool falls just shy of the 100,000-a-year level needed to add 1 million over a decade.)

To be sure, these totals use PCAST’s definition of a college degree, which encompasses both the bachelor’s and associate level. The split is roughly six or seven to one: In 2012, for example, there were 53,000 associate degrees in STEM fields out of the total of 355,000 graduates. (Four-fifths of the 2-year STEM degrees awarded were in computer science.)

The PCAST report does not suggest what rate of growth is preferred. In particular, it doesn’t opine on whether spikes and troughs matter. However, front-loading the increase makes it much easier to achieve the overall goal.

For example, a surge of 100,000 graduates in the first few years—say, an extra 40,000 the first year, and then an additional 60,000 in the second year—would then require only miniscule increases in subsequent years to achieve the target. In contrast, flat production for the first several years would require a huge leap in output in the latter years of the decade.

It turns out that the steady rise in actual production over the past decade may also get you where you want to go. Based on the NSF data, that seems like a reasonable bet—even if it runs counter to the conventional narrative. For whatever reason, it appears, U.S. students are finding their own way to a STEM degree.

Posted in Education, Policy