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U.S. Science and Engineering Degrees Increase

Taken for Granted
Kelly Krause, AAAS

The number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields is growing faster than in other fields, reports the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Since 2009, science and engineering degrees have increased by 19%, a little more than double the 9% growth rate for other fields.

Women are now earning 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, the report continues, including half of all science and engineering degrees. Biological and social sciences had the heaviest female representation among scientific fields in 2013, at 58% and 62%, respectively. However, women earned just 19% of 2013 engineering degrees (a 1 percentage point rise since 2009), 26% of math and computer sciences degrees (unchanged since 2009), 38% of degrees in earth and atmospheric sciences, and 38% in physical sciences (a 3 percentage point drop since 2009).

Speaking of engineering degrees: Earlier this year, Hal Salzman and colleagues issued a report that described the petroleum engineering field as a "natural experiment" in labor-market economics. Following a shortage of petroleum engineers, they pointed out, salaries rose dramatically, and in response, the supply of workers with the appropriate training quickly rose. This shows, Salzman and colleagues argued, that despite some claims, scientific and technical employment is not immune to forces of supply and demand. 

Now it seems that the market response may be too vigorus for the current, strong demand and high entry-level salaries to continue. (Falling prices when supplies increase are, of course, as much a part of supply and demand as rising prices when supplies decrease). As a result, one petroleum engineering department is doing the right thing.

According to the Cost of College blog, the petroleum engineering department at Texas A & M University (TAMU) in College Station, a leading department in the field, is warning its incoming students about the field’s growing popularity and its potential effect on their future earnings. Citing a 55% jump in enrollment in U.S. petroleum engineering programs in a single year, the department expressed concern that growing enrollment may affect "the sustainability of the entry level job market" by the time students graduate. "Our program’s board of industry advisors are recommending that we 'do not grow' our undergraduate program at this time," says a letter from the department to admitted students, quoted on the blog.

"We are not trying to discourage you from a career that we think is among the most fascinating, dynamic, challenging careers that exist," the letter continues. "However, we also want you to know that the Aggie PETE program is doing the right thing by providing you with information that could end up being important to your future."

At a time when many science departments are maintaining or increasing their enrollments despite evidence that they are producing far more graduates than can find good jobs in their field, and then justifying these enrollment decisions with vague allusions to alternative careers, we commend TAMU for its conscientious action. Indeed, we believe that every institution should follow TAMU’s example: As they tout the intellectual excitement and challenges that their programs (and subsequent careers) can offer, they should also provide a realistic picture of career prospects in the field so that students can make well-informed decisions about what subjects to study.

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