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Building America’s Future: STEM Education Intervention is a Win-Win

November 01, 2017
Pop culture’s fascination with science, technology, engineering, and math jobs is vast. From a fixation on the applications and impacts of automation and artificial intelligence, to an enduring interest in startups and technology entrepreneurship, it seems we cannot go more than a day without a headline using the phrase “Jobs of the Future.”[1]

Usually, those articles are quickly followed up by some comment on the woefully under-skilled US workforce. While these sentiments lack nuance, evidence from international standardized test performance and job vacancy data does indicate the US has a math and science competency deficiency. The proportion of STEM bachelor’s degrees has actually declined over the last several decades, from 24% in 1985 to just 18% in 2009. [2] Thus, despite the fact that our highest paying jobs are largely in STEM fields, the inability to staff those positions is a massive bottleneck for businesses. [3][4] Building a STEM-capable workforce provides public policymakers, left with a struggling working class whose jobs have increasingly been lost to automation, a path to provide reliable, lucrative, work opportunities. How policymakers and educators build that workforce is an evolving question with many answers but will include innovative pedagogy, after school programs, STEM-specific secondary schools, and better teacher training. While not the subject of this article, it will also include better access to technical training and an increased role of community colleges and technical schools. If done right, better STEM education could unlock over $1 trillion in annual GDP and millions of middle and high-paying jobs: an opportunity truly worth investing in. [5]

Understanding the STEM Problem

It is clear that both comparatively and absolutely, the United States education system is failing to effectively educate students in STEM subjects. Americans’ performance on international exams like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is average in reading and science and below average in math; the US scored 35th in math, and 24th and 25th in reading and science respectively.[6] Similarly, the US ranks 29th of 109 countries in the proportion of 24-year olds with a mathematics or science degree. [7] While arguments about “international competitiveness” raise complex questions on topics as far-ranging as immigration policy and national security, the effects of this skills gap are far more immediate. While the 8.6 million STEM jobs in the US in May 2015 represented only 6.2% of U.S. employment, STEM jobs are growing twice as fast as other jobs (over 10% year over year). [8] By 2020,
Brookings finds, “demand for skilled technologists will exceed the number of qualified applicants by 1 million.” [9] Education, in particular STEM education, is key to filling these jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics observed that more than 99% of STEM jobs typically require some form of postsecondary education, while only 36% of other jobs require that level of education. Those data also show 73% of required degrees in STEM jobs that require postsecondary education are bachelor’s degrees (compared to 21% of regular jobs).[10] Individual regions help illustrate this crisis: Michigan is projected to have 228,000 STEM jobs by 2018, but only 4% of the Detroit Public School system’s eighth graders scored proficiently in math.[11] Students are not leaving the K-12 system with the tools they need to succeed in postsecondary education, and in their careers. To educators, this is not news, but a holistic and multilateral approach at the K-12 level and at colleges and universities will help educators better answer the challenges of STEM education. In short, policymakers need to help educators better prepare our students, to support the economic growth engine that is STEM and empower students to achieve higher financial success.

(Image: High education requirements for STEM degrees. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Image: High education requirements for STEM degrees. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

How STEM builds incomes

A STEM degree is a massive boost to earning potential, as STEM jobs pay well above the national average. BLS data show 93 of the top 100 STEM occupations pay above average wages, and the average STEM job salary is $87,570, almost double the non-STEM national average. [12] The Department of Education found that college STEM graduates earn about $15,500 more per year than their peers post-graduation (average $65,000) and are more likely to be employed in a full time job, rather than in one or more part-time jobs, or unemployed. [13] With jobs in STEM growing 50% higher than the national growth average, opportunities for professionals entering the field abound. In computer-based occupations alone, a field expected to grow by 12.5% year over year from 2014-2024, employers will offer half a million new jobs this decade. [14] The stability and availability of STEM jobs makes them incredibly attractive options for students from low-income families. Policymakers concerned about both income inequality and a lack of socioeconomic mobility should understand the opportunities a STEM education provide; stable, in-demand work with high pay across a diverse set of growing industries.

(Image: High earning potential for STEM degrees. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

(Image: High earning potential for STEM degrees. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Challenges to Effective STEM Education

Challenges in STEM education summarized by two key, interrelated problems; (1) students often start but rarely complete their STEM degrees and (2) fewer still of those degree holders are women or people of color. Hispanics, African Americans and Native Americans make up 27% of the workforce, but only 11% of STEM workers. [15] The latter is a problem with a number of causal factors, some of which public policy is ill-equipped to address. However, issues of inclusivity pose significant risks to the aims of STEM education policy; because white women and people of color comprise 70% of college graduates, an already thin pipeline becomes unsustainable if the challenges underrepresented groups face are not addressed. Studies have demonstrated time after time that the interest in STEM is there, but that most students who enroll in STEM subjects leave the field before completing their degree. One study observed “40 percent of those who enroll in engineering change their programs to non-science and non-technical majors; 50 percent drop out of physical and biological sciences and 60 percent drop out of mathematics programs. The two groups of students with high dropouts are female students and underrepresented minority students.” [16]

This begs the question: what causes students to leave fields in which they expressed interest? There are innumerable answers to that question, but one incredibly important one is academic preparedness. One 2013 study found a whopping 45% of incoming freshmen had significant mathematics deficiencies.[17] The lack of preparation negatively impacts students’ ability to succeed in the classroom in early STEM courses. While 41% of those who did not take algebra II/trigonometry or higher math courses in high school left STEM majors by dropping out, only 12% of those who took calculus in high school did the same.[18]

Similar trends hold true for completing the Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum. One study found “students who take AP classes in calculus and the sciences are more likely to select majors in careers such as engineering, science, mathematics, and the medical field. In this study, both minority and non-minority students who were taking AP calculus and/or science courses in high school selected STEM careers at a higher rate than other career.”[19] Another found that getting credit for the AP Calculus exam and other STEM APs like Computer Science was the most important predictor of completing a STEM major degree. [20] Access to the AP curriculum is still not universal, despite its link to student STEM achievement. Obviously, causality is hard to prove here. More research should be conducted to see if AP achievement is a cause of better STEM performance, rather than just associated with greater skill and interest in STEM.

Some of students’ deficient STEM fundamentals is also a result of instruction quality. Having a middle or high school teacher who specializes in the STEM subject they teach increased a student’s probability of pursuing STEM courses in college.[21] However, around a third of public school math, chemistry, and physics teachers do not have a degree or a minor in that field or a related field (physics majors are likely qualified to teach algebra, for example). [22] Cash-strapped and remote districts are doing the best they can, but more relevant instruction is key to helping students better prepare for STEM college education. Policymakers should consider teacher training programs to help boost the availability of skilled teachers, especially in rural or low income school districts.


As shown above, our national STEM crisis is exacerbated by racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities. Racial inequalities are not for a lack of capability; studies that take pre-college preparedness and family income into account find no difference in STEM degree completion rates across races. [23] While many of the previously explored challenges of pre-college academic readiness are addressed in the nation’s best urban public magnet schools– schools like Bronx Science (New York) and Thomas Jefferson (Northern Virginia) or even Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy– access to such institutions is far from equal. Magnet schools, with high stakes entrance exams that supposedly test for ability, have been criticized for the lack of diversity within their halls, often selecting students from the wealthiest and most engaged families, pulling funding and teaching talent away from those that need resources most. [24] One potential solution to this critique of charter and magnet schools generally (many public STEM schools are magnet and charter schools) is the development of so called “inclusive” charter schools, which prioritize an interest in STEM fields over academic track records as admissions criteria. The power of inclusive STEM schools is further addressed in the policy section below.

(Image: Racial inequality of STEM degree attainment. Source: National Science Foundation)

(Image: Racial inequality of STEM degree attainment. Source: National Science Foundation)

Policy Solutions

Afterschool programs and teachers

A strong pre-college background in STEM subjects is required to do well in those fields in college. Fully trained teachers with expertise in the subjects of math, chemistry, physics and earth sciences are of paramount importance. Policymakers can help address this shortage through training programs. The Obama administration 100Kin10 project leveraged public private partnerships to train 100,000 STEM educators, 40,000 have already been trained by the program. [25] Additionally, afterschool programs can help shift the burden of building STEM capabilities from overstretched schools to other programs. For example, FIRST, an internationally recognized robotics program that sparks interest in STEM, has impressed educators by building hands on STEM skills in diverse populations. FIRST students are twice as likely to major in engineering or science. Further down the line, 45% (twice the national average) of students involved in the FIRST program end up in STEM careers. [26] Funding after school programs and teacher training initiatives are effective means of increasing student abilities and engagement without the punitive approach of raising academic standards. 


Building out access to AP curricula, especially AP Computer Science, which only one in four schools offers, is a good way to expose students to the foundational content students will need to pursue four year degrees and succeed in their coursework.[27] While the value proposition for AP exams is still up for debate, especially for low-income and under-resourced districts, “passing” exams is still a significant predictor of future STEM success. [28] Policy proposals have followed these general guidelines. While Obama’s 4bn+ proposal to build computer science skills, including access to APs, teacher training, etc., was never pursued by Congress, but state and local governments are leading efforts to develop these programs. [29] President Trump has committed $200mm of existing Department of Education funding to support school’s computer science curricula. However, the President’s proposed $9bn cutting Department of Education funding will likely restrict funding for many existing STEM school grant and teacher training programs. [30]

Inclusive STEM schools

More radical, harder-to-implement approaches to confronting the skills gap include building specialty STEM schools and supporting pre-college bridge programs. STEM schools alone increased the proportion of students who went on to study STEM in college. 51% of specialized high-school students reported majoring in science, whereas 23% of the national sample graduated with such majors.[31] However, critics have cited the tendency of STEM schools to simply take the most “talented” students out of general public schools, students who have a long track record of high academic performance and the wherewithal to prepare for applications to STEM high schools. Students at elite magnet and charter schools are already far more likely to be wealthy, and Asian or white. [32] While the debate on charter schools is outside the scope of this article, these schools can siphon public school resources and teaching talent away from those that need them most.

Inclusive STEM schools are a more thoughtful option. They are specialty programs (either a standalone school or “school within a school”) but take a different approach than traditional STEM charter or magnet schools by accepting students not on test performance or academic record, but on an “interest” in STEM subjects. They are far more diverse than standard STEM or charter schools, and some cater in particular to low income or underrepresented students. The early results of these programs are promising. There are already inclusive STEM schools in Texas, North Carolina and Ohio, and researchers at SRI-funded by the National Science foundation- compared graduates from these schools with standard public schools on a number of indicators of future STEM achievement. Graduates of inclusive STEM high schools “were more likely to be currently enrolled in a four-year college, had completed more college courses and earned more credits, and were more likely to have declared a STEM major than the graduates of comprehensive high schools.”[33] Furthermore, inclusive STEM students in Texas were 44% more likely to enroll as engineering majors and showed statically significant improvements on state standardized math tests.[34] [35] Even though these students were not selected for academic achievement, they were still better prepared to succeed in STEM in college. The results of that SRI study on inclusive STEM schools are ongoing, but inclusive STEM schools promise to address important pipeline problems while remaining far more equitable than their non-inclusive counterparts.

Bridge and Scholars programs

Bridge programs and scholars programs at the precollege and college level have also demonstrated success in increasing STEM persistence. Bridge programs are low-cost pre-college programs that last for a few days to several weeks. They help students ill-prepared for college coursework bulk up on fundamentals and gain access to resources and community support. Pre-college programs like Operation STEM in Cleveland State University, and online math fundamentals courses at Delaware State University (a Historically Black University), and the PEERS program at UCLA, have increased pass rates for key math and science courses, raised GPAs and improved overall STEM graduation rates for underrepresented and poorly prepared students. [36] [37] [38] Policymakers should consider national and state-level funding for state university programs that help build skills and community for underrepresented students with declared STEM majors, both before and during their college experience.


There are two big risks for policymakers in the development of more robust national STEM policy. The first is a failure to perform more comprehensive longitudinal research on the effectiveness of different STEM K-12 and college intervention programs. Pouring money into any program with the word STEM on it is risky, irresponsible, and potentially costly. [39] Data on effective programs is just now being effectively culled into something that resembles best practices, and policymakers should continue to invest in studying the causal drivers of different STEM programs.

The other risk is government overreach. Public school district officials and their supporters have loudly registered their objections to a recent proposal to build a “crown jewel,” state-run (rather than district-run) STEM school focused on low income and ESL children in Los Angeles.[40] The school district and its supporters are concerned with the state’s efforts to perform services traditionally in the district’s purview. While one-off exceptions to the rule are often poor policy, state and federal education policymakers should work with (instead of above) districts to fund, support, and author best practices on STEM curricula, afterschool programs, and standalone STEM schools. Relatedly, districts should not perceive efforts to make high quality STEM education more accessible as attempts to undermine local public schools. Inclusive STEM schools should go a long way to assuaging those fears.


Teasing out cause and effect in education policy is never an easy feat. However, the STEM crisis in this country is too important for policymakers to relinquish responsibility for addressing it. To empower a diverse population of students to complete STEM degrees and find high paying jobs would build pathways to economic advancement in communities that need it. It would also solidify the US’ global competitiveness in high-tech industry and help address the digital skills gap, adding as much as 1.3 trillion dollars to our GDP each year. [41] Excellence for the best students is not enough. With fewer middle and upper middle class jobs available, the fight for better STEM education and the opportunities it provides is no less than a fight for the American dream itself. 

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.





















  [20] ibid.























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