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Higher Ed Shake Up
If You Major in STEM, It Doesn’t Matter Where You Go to College

We’ve written before about how selective colleges function to perpetuate privilege, giving students access to exclusive resources, opportunities and networks that are unavailable to students who are just as bright but couldn’t impress an admissions committee at age 17—or who, for financial or personal reasons, didn’t want to go to a elite school. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the economists Erica Eide and Michael Himler, who have tallied earnings data for students across colleges and across different majors, offer an important qualification to his phenomenon: it only seems to apply to students who earn liberal arts degrees. Students with similar characteristics who major in STEM fields earn roughly the same wherever they go to college:

We find no statistically significant differences in average earnings for science majors between selective schools and either midtier or less-selective schools. Likewise, there’s no significant earnings difference between engineering graduates from selective and less-selective colleges, and only a marginally significant difference between selective and midtier colleges.

…That said, the earnings picture is very different for other fields. Outside of STEM, it matters tremendously where a student receives a degree.

The starkest earnings differences are for business majors, where graduates from the selective institutions earn 12% more on average than midtier graduates and 18% more than graduates from less-selective colleges. Likewise, social-science majors from selective colleges earn 11% more than their midtier counterparts and 14% more than those from less-selective schools.

For education majors, the differences are 6% and 9%, respectively. In humanities, graduates of selective schools earn 11% more than those from less-selective ones, although they don’t earn more than those from midtier schools.

There are many interesting nuances to their findings not captured in the above excerpt, so read the whole thing. In the meantime, two preliminary points seem worth making:

First, the fact that STEM majors who go to inexpensive low-or-mid-tier schools do just as well, income-wise, as their counterparts who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an Ivy League education, suggests that there is plenty of room for cost-saving in these programs. Universities are starting to take advantage of this: Perhaps the most successful MOOC degree program to date is Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree in computer science, which costs 80 percent less than its in-person counterpart. Elite liberal arts colleges tout the value of face-to-face learning in a small classroom setting, and, indeed, this may be valuable to many students. But Eide and Himler’s findings suggest that, for scientists and engineers, such an experience doesn’t actually change students’ job prospects. At a time when college costs keep going up, and middle and working class families keep getting squeezed, these data highlight the need to find more efficient ways to deliver knowledge at lower cost.

Second, the fact that there is such a dramatic difference between the earnings of liberal arts majors from top colleges and students with similar abilities from lesser-ranked colleges suggests that the privilege-reinforcing effect of elite education discussed above can be very real. Not only is this unfair, it points to economic inefficiencies: If colleges are relying on the prestige of liberal arts students’ degrees, rather than their actual skills and knowledge, to make hiring decisions, they are probably selling themselves short. That’s one reason we proposed a system of national exams to allow students from, say, West Texas State to compete on equal footing in the job market with students from Princeton. One reason the incomes for STEM majors are comparable across schools is that many technology companies have essentially figured out how to do this for engineers. Companies that hire philosophy majors would do well to also start thinking along those lines.

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  • Arkeygeezer

    Please explain STEM and MOOG. I didn’t know I was on twitter.

    • Ofer Imanuel

      STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine. In other words, real degrees 🙂

      MOOC = Massive Open Online Course

      You can also google it.

      • JeanneDee

        STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine.

        Mathematics is the M, not Medicine. There is normally no undergraduate degree in medicine.

        (Although there seems to indeed be a move to throw out math and substitute medicine, throw out Engineering and substitute Education, and I misdoubt they’ll throw out Science in favor of Sociology in the end.)

    • FriendlyGoat

      Staying off Twitter is a reason for me to compliment your intelligence, seriously.

      • Andrew Allison

        Well, since I not only abhor social networking of any variety but don’t even watch TV, I guess I must be pretty smart [grin]

        • FriendlyGoat

          Yes, in that regard, you absolutely are.

  • GS

    Ummm, R. Herrnstein, C. Murray, The Bell Curve, 1994, a graph on page 40: the mean SAT(V) scores of the high school seniors who go to different schools, with Harvard at 680, North Carolina State at 440, and Tulane at 530. SAT score is an IQ proxy, and even if for the STEM majors the picture is more compressed, I read the article as accusing the selective schools of the grossest educational inefficiency: given the excellent material they are working with, they could do much more with it.

    • Jim__L

      Another alternative explanation is that engineers get screwed by business majors when it comes to paychecks.

      Or, perhaps the networking for engineers is based on their subject matter interests — conferences they attend and such — instead of being highly dependent on their college connections.

      I’ve met too many competent engineers from ITT Tech and too many indifferent engineers from the Ivies to believe that there’s anything magical about Ivy League degrees. Or IQ / SAT scores either, for that matter.

      • GS

        Well, throughout my career I have found that [ceteris paribus] IQ matters a lot. Some are parrots [pointy-haired and not], the others are capable of thinking. And that’s why I stand by my understanding of that article. What one COULD MAKE out of a high IQ student is stupendous. What they ACTUALLY MAKE out of them is a totally different matter. And that difference is the basis for the educational malpractice accusation.

        • Kevin

          I think they control for student ability (using SATs probably) and then say for STEM majors of equal abilities it doesn’t matter where you go to school. But STEM graduates with better abilities (IQ, SAT, etc.) still do better than those with lower abilities.

      • FriendlyGoat

        It’s not an accident that Scott Adams, the perceptive cartoonist, brought us Dilbert in the form of an engineer, one who is actually analytical but living in the crazy machinations of others who are not. Devolving to one of my favorite subjects (and I always do), this is the reason I support moderate taxation for people in the class of engineers (and below), but much steeper taxation for the class of business majors who cause those other folks to “get screwed” (as you put it) via the “machinations” which can be performed at higher levels through the “art of trading”.

  • qet

    What TAI seems to keep saying in these pieces on the Ivies (my shorthand for the “selective” colleges generally) is that the employer market is inefficient; that employers are stupid. Employers who use an Ivy degree as a proxy for job ability and who are disappointed enough in that expectation will cease doing that. Right? The marketplace generally will supply the necessary information to all prospective employers that Ivy degrees are not reliable data in hiring decisions and so other data will be used. Yet the Ivy liberal arts graduates keep having all this success. There are only two possible answers. Either the numbers are wrong as to the non-superior performance of the Ivy graduates relative to other graduates; or, the measures of performance are faulty, are measuring the wrong things.

    TAI should remember cachet. Cachet: n. a mark or quality, as of distinction, individuality, or authenticity; great prestige or appeal. I have seen for myself that certain employers will hire a PhD holder into a liberal arts job even if he is less capable than someone else, because of the cachet of the degree. I have seen this phenomenon also as it applies to people’s colleges. it must be economically rational for employers of liberal arts majors to assign a higher value to the cachet of an Ivy diploma. Therefore there is no necessary inefficiency.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Employers are not permitted to use other ways to determine candidate value. They are not permitted to use aptitude tests (Duke v Griggs….my favorite hobby horse), most non-academic forms of evaluation are now considered racist/sexist/etc., you get the idea. So they use cachet as a proxy, however poor a substitute it may be. This is another example of government interfering with the marketplace and thus distorting it….reducing its efficiency.
      Ironically this hurts the very people that it was designed to help….quelle surprise!

      • qet

        No, but if over time Ivy grads systematically underperformed graduates from other schools, this information would be factored into employer hiring. Employers would give shorter shrift to Ivy graduates because experience–not just of those employers but of all employers–would caution them against using the Ivy diploma as a proxy for expected job performance. At least that is what I am suggesting would happen, in reaction to TAI’s characterization of the Ivy preference as “inefficient.”

        • Mastro63

          They are probably clever enough not to underperform state grads- but selection bias and the good-old-boy network will keep them ahead of the State U grads. Especially when Ivy grads do the hiring.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Perhaps, but I rather doubt it. Managers and senior bosses (who are less likely to be STEM types) aren’t going to be swayed by little things like competence, it being an article of faith among most managers that success comes from management, not those who actually do the work…
          I have seen this up close and personal (note: I have several degrees from Ivies, so I am speaking against interest here), and don’t expect it to change for a long, long time. Most Ivy STEM departments have been living off of their reps for years anyway, but that dirty little secret rarely emerges.

    • Anthony

      There is no necessary inefficiency but there is underlying class and Institutional envy masquerading as something other.

    • stefanstackhouse

      The cachet that really matters for non-STEM majors is the thickness of their address book (or digital equivalent) and especially the quality of contacts contained therein. Knowing the right people, and knowing a lot of them, does make a big difference. Not so much so for people in the STEM disciplines, however, where actually knowing the subject matter and demonstrating superior competency in it is what matters hugely. There are plenty of STEM people who are introverts without particularly great social skills but who nevertheless are very good at what they do and do just fine for themselves.

  • jtdavies

    I’d go along with this up to a point. But I wonder whether they are considering Ivy Leagues as the elite schools. A Harvard engineer, for example, wouldn’t automatically impress me.

    But Cal Tech, Rensselaer, MIT STEM majors probably have a big leg up.

    • Mastro63

      Cornell probably get the most respect for its STEM in the Ivies- with maybe Penn next.

      Frankly engineering is more a middle class aspiration job. When rich people have kids smart enough to be engineers they get shunted to business or law.

      Note that Mark Zuckerberg was a Harvard computer science guy- so there’s one Harvard STEM guy who might impress you.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Zuckerberg impressed me as a marketer and a manager (as well as a thief, but that is another matter), certainly not as a computer scientist.
        And thank you for your kind remarks about JHU!

        • Mastro63

          Zuck was/is at least a decent coder (unlike- say Jobs). Facebook also is technically better than My Space (from what I’ve been told)

          • f1b0nacc1

            Jobs never pretended to be a coder, Zuck still does.
            Facebook is clearly better than MySpace, but on the other hand that is setting the bar rather low, don’t you think?

      • stefanstackhouse

        Don’t forget that there are arguably about a 10-20 or so state universities that could legitimately be called “public ivies”, and that have programs in multiple STEM disciplines that are of world-class quality.

  • gr8econ

    The issue with liberal arts is which school can you get into. For engineering the issue is getting out.

    • InklingBooks

      Brilliant and true!

      Where I went to school, Auburn University, the attrition rate in pre-engineering was sky high. We joked that the difficulties of pre-engineering often led people to change their major to business to survive.

    • johngbarker

      How true!

    • stefanstackhouse

      That’s true – and to the extent that many of the first and second year “flunk-out courses” at the major research universities are taught by TAs with iffy English language fluency, it might be just as well for an engineering (or all STEM disciplines, really) student to do their first two years of work at someplace where they can get more individualized and competent instruction.

      There are two really big issues for students in the STEM disciplines: 1) access to good, up-to-date lab equipment; and 2) coming under the mentorship in their last two years of at least one professor with a national (or preferably international) reputation. If the student can make it through their first two years, these two factors become hugely important.

  • UncleFedele

    Having gone to a top 5 (at the time) school for my STEM degree I can tell you that, at least in my case, it made a huge difference in outcomes compared to many of my colleagues . The primary difference was the level of competition that I faced among my fellow students. Literally the best and brightest selected by objective testing in foreign countries and sent on their nation’s dime and professionals in science and industry sent full time on their employer’s dime to pursue advanced degrees were a significant percentage of my classmates.

    The result was I was prepared for competition in the job market. Hard work, dedication, innovative thinking, a willingness to accept considered risk, and a foundational education that I still use 40 years later, have resulted in a well above average financial rewards compared to many of my peers. One can argue I might have done just as well having attended a less demanding school, but I firmly believe that the additional money I spent on my education has paid off many fold.

  • Del_Varner

    How about in majors like Biology and Chemistry

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