Nov 23, 2015

ACT finds students with STEM interest outperform peers

According a recently-released report from ACT, about half of U.S. high school graduate s from the class of 2015 expressed interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors and careers.  

This shouldn’t be too surprising given the nature of current job market trends suggesting unemployment rates for STEM workers remain below the national average.  In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary in 2014 for occupations in STEM fields was about $81,000, which is 72 percent higher than the $47,000 average salary for all occupations.  And growth in the STEM job market is expected to continue to run circles around that of other sectors—from 2010 to 2020, employment in science and engineering occupations is projected to increase 18.7 percent, which is higher than the 14.3 percent estimated rate of growth for all occupations.

So it’s only natural that high school students in the graduating class of 2015 would voice an attraction to STEM-related fields, especially those worried about paying for the extraordinarily high and growing cost of a postsecondary education. But what might be a little concerning for college professors and others staffing the arts and humanities, ACT also reports that “students who demonstrate both an expressed and measured interest in STEM outperformed their peers in terms of college readiness.”

Does that mean the best and brightest high school grads are going into STEM? Is the increasing interest in STEM signaling a brain drain in other fields? ACT doesn’t think so.

“As for liberal arts or other majors, the findings don’t necessarily mean that they are devoid of high achieving students,” explained Edward R. Colby, senior director for ACT media and public relations. “They simply mean that the attention given to STEM may drive some students who may have had different majors into the STEM fields.”

And that finding alone might be disturbing to those with vested interest in the arts and humanities.
Of the more than 1.9 million high school graduates who took the ACT in 2015, nearly 940,000, or 49 percent, had an interest in STEM. Five-year trends show the percentage of students interested in Computer Science and Mathematics majors has increased by two percent, while there has been a three percent decrease in the percentage of students choosing medical and health majors—another sign that high school students may be sensitive to market trends.

ACT also reports that interest in STEM hovered around 45 percent of graduates ten years ago. So the increase to 49 percent, while significant, is not overly dramatic.

“We believe the subtle shift is most likely caused by the visibility being given to STEM in a variety of circles, both education and the workplace,” said Colby. “There is likely a greater awareness of the importance of STEM, and more efforts have been made to encourage students to consider STEM careers in recent years.”

But despite documented interest in STEM graduates and the push to prepare students to enter STEM fields, interest in teaching STEM subject areas continues to lag. The number of 2015 high school graduates interested in teaching math and science was lower in 2014. 

And according to ACT, “This is an alarming finding, as meeting the demand for well-prepared teachers in STEM areas is critical to the future of our country.”

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