in today's WSJ, Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay, the article opens with this:
Biyan Zhou wanted to major in engineering. Her mother and her academic adviser also wanted her to major in it, given the apparent career opportunities for engineers in a tough job market. But during her sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Zhou switched her major from electrical and computer engineering to a double major in psychology and policy management. Workers who majored in psychology have median earnings that are $38,000 below those of computer engineering majors, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Georgetown University.
"My ability level was just not there," says Ms. Zhou of her decision. She now plans to look for jobs in public relations or human resources.
The NYT had this article, "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)" (pointed out by Glen a few days ago.)
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.
Why the attrition? Some are the usual suspects: from the WSJ piece again:
For 22-year-old Ms. Zhou, from Miami, the last straw was a project for one of her second-year courses that kept her and her partner in the lab well past midnight for several days. Their task was to program a soda machine. Though she and her partner managed to make it dispense the right items, they couldn't get it to give the correct change.
Such unpreparedness in part explains this (from NYT piece): "Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a similar study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors." But so does the burnout factor from the death march through calculus, as illustrated by "MATTHEW MONIZ bailed out of engineering at Notre Dame in the fall of his sophomore year...He had scored an 800 in math on the SAT and in the 700s in both reading and writing. He also had taken Calculus BC and five other Advanced Placement courses at a prep school in Washington, D.C., and had long planned to major in engineering....But as Mr. Moniz sat in his mechanics class in 2009, he realized he had already had enough. “I was trying to memorize equations, and engineering’s all about the application, which they really didn’t teach too well,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Do these practice problems, then you’re on your own.’
They quote Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at U.C.L.A. who says it isn't just weak K-12 prep that causes this washout.
"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.”
His argument seems to be that the kids at Cal are better prepared than the kids at CSU, so more of them should succeed, if the issue was really k-12 prep. I don't think that gets to the heart of the prep matter though. The kids at Cal, Notre Dame and the like are Used to Succeeding, and they aren't succeeding. This is a huge blow to them, at the same time that the intro courses are often seen as the drudgework to get to the electives, a point made in the NYT article. It feels better to get As in psych than B-s in EE.
Some new students do not have a good feel for how deeply technical engineering is. Other bright students may have breezed through high school without developing disciplined habits. By contrast, students in China and India focus relentlessly on math and science from an early age.
“We’re in a worldwide competition, and we’ve got to retain as many of our students as we can,” Dean Kilpatrick says. “But we’re not doing kids a favor if we’re not teaching them good life and study skills.
So many fall off. And what about the ones who make it?
You work harder for lower grades than your peers, and the payoff is either a) a career path where your employer is constantly lobbying the govt to drive down your pay by increasing immigration, or b) a career path where you front load all of your risk onto a low probability lottery ticket to the world of academia just as the higher ed bubble is bursting.
Not depressing enough? Read Arnold Kling's "What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?" Kling suggests high unemployment now is structural, coming from a new phase of an economic transition away from plentiful high paying white collar jobs, just as prior restructuring moved away from plentiful high paying blue collar jobs.
Using the latest Census Bureau data, Matthew Slaughter found that from 2000 to 2010 the real earnings of college graduates (with no advanced degree) fell by more in percentage terms than the earnings of high school graduates. In fact, over this period the only education category to show an increase in earnings was those with advanced degrees.
The outlook for mid-skill jobs would not appear to be bright. Communication technology and computer intelligence continue to improve, putting more occupations at risk.
For example, many people earn a living as drivers, including trucks and taxicabs. However, the age of driver-less vehicles appears to be moving closer.
Another example is in the field of education. In the fall of 2011, an experiment with an online course in artificial intelligence conducted by two Stanford professors drew tens of thousands of registrants. This increases the student-teacher ratio by a factor of close to a thousand. Imagine the number of teaching jobs that might be eliminated if this could be done for calculus, economics, chemistry, and so on.
So much for that lottery ticket to academia...but what about the private sector? Kling says:
...the main work consists of destroying someone else's job. Garett Jones has pointed out that the typical worker today does not produce widgets but instead builds organizational capital. The problem is that building organizational capital in one company serves to depreciate the organizational capital somewhere else. Blockbuster video adversely affected the capital of movie theaters, Netflix adversely affected the capital of Blockbuster, and the combination of faster Internet speeds and tablet devices may depreciate the organizational capital of Netflix.
The second challenge is the nature of the emerging skills mismatch. People who are self-directed and cognitively capable can keep adding to their advantages. People who lack those traits cannot simply be exhorted into obtaining them. The new jobs that emerge may not produce a middle class. Instead, if the trend documented by Autor for the period 1999-2007 were to continue, most of the new jobs would be low-end service jobs, for which competition will tend to keep wages low.
He goes on to posit some possible futures. He's not optimistic.
update: Kling link fixed. Thanks, ChemProf!