The Future Belongs to TEM, Not STEM

In the realm of “be careful of what you wish for” lies the clamor for increasing the country’s number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates. But with careers for millennials stalling on the launch pad, does the push for STEM really make sense? Is STEM a sure path to high wages?

State data collected through AIR’s College Measures raised this question in 2012 and our research since has explored the low wages of science programs in a number of states—most recently, Colorado and Tennessee. Now, new national data from Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce (CEW) on mid-career earnings confirm that it’s not STEM that matters. It’s TEM.

Using earnings as an indicator of market demand, both College Measures and now CEW data suggest that the nation may not need more bachelor’s graduates in the most popular science fields. Indeed, employers aren’t valuing degrees in biology—the largest science field—any more than degrees in many social sciences or humanities.

The national data peg average mid-career earnings for all college graduates at around $61,000 a year. For biology majors with a bachelor’s degree, earnings are about $56,000. That’s about 100,000 biology graduates a year averaging $5000 less than the average college grad.

So how about chemistry, a fairly large scientific field with well over 13,000 bachelor’s degrees granted annually? Chemists with BA’s do get a wage premium—earning about $64,000 a year by mid-career—but it’s only about 5% more than all graduates earn on average. But while chemistry trumps biology, majors in TEM fields are a whole other story.

For starters, engineering graduates rank among the nation’s highest paid graduates. Even the three lowest paying engineering fields—mechanical engineering, computer engineering, and geological engineering—pay around $87,000 in mid-career. That’s a wage premium of over 40% compared to the average bachelor’s graduate.

Not far behind are math majors. Compared to the average college graduate earning $61,000, applied math graduates in mid-career pull down $83,000, statistics graduates $78,000, and general math graduates $73,000. In the same ballpark, computer science graduates in mid-career earn $83,000 on average and information science graduates, $73,000.

A good question emerging from these earnings data is whether having a bachelor’s in science is what matters when the real money to be made in these fields comes with advanced degrees. Indeed, earnings do jump when biology and chemistry bachelor’s graduates earn advanced degrees. The CEW research finds a $36,000 bump in earnings for advanced degrees in biology and $39,000 for chemistry.  

The trouble is, most bachelor’s graduates in these fields don’t get advanced degrees. In 2013, about 85% of all biology degrees granted in the nation went to undergraduates. For chemistry, it was about 75%.  In short, relatively few chemistry and biology majors will ever see the big earnings payoff for advanced degrees in these fields.

Rather than simply calling for more STEM education, let’s base education policy—and the messages we send to students—on evidence from states and the nation as a whole. The data strongly suggest that engineers and others who learn how to help firms build or fix things or statisticians who can manage complex data will fare better than those with bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry.

For now, the future belongs to TEM, not STEM.

Mark Schneider is a vice president and an Institute Fellow at AIR. Prior to joining AIR, Dr. Schneider served as Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005-2008. Dr. Schneider is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of political science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook