Science is really hard…

Or so claims the New York Times:

Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

The bulk of attrition comes in engineering and among pre-med majors, who typically leave STEM fields if their hopes for medical school fade. There is no doubt that the main majors are difficult and growing more complex. Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.

My basic problem is the overall framing of the article. I am deeply skeptical we actually “need” more scientists, and my casual reading of the economics suggests the problem would disappear if industry just raised salaries. I have to look up the references, but I believe a few studies document that interest in STEM fields fields closely tracks salaries and employment prospects. As the article itself noted, many gifted students quickly “see easier ways to make money.”

I also don’t think Matt Moniz’s decision (profiled in the article) to switch out of engineering into psychology and English should be viewed as this great tragedy.
That said, I’m all for people keeping people interested in science and engineering, making classwork more relevant to daily life, getting rid of/minimizing weed-out classes, and mostly eliminating the whole macho attitude around these fields.

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