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.
Not everyone is cut out to be an engineer or scientist. These are the hardest college majors for a reason. There is no faking your way to a degree, and upon acquiring said degree, a graduate degree is usually required in order to have any chance of progressing in a career. That being said, colleges need to do a much better job in nurturing and graduating more students for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers.
I vividly remember my first college chemistry class. It was a course that all engineering majors had to take, so the entire freshman engineering class was dumped into one section. That was over 200 students, with a professor that could have not been more disinterested and foreign TA’s with impenetrable accents.
I was devastated when the results of our first midterm came in and I got a 69. Then my friend standing next to me told me the median grade was a 32. I had the second highest grade in the class. This is not meant to be an opportunity to gloat as I failed my fair share of tests and had plenty of horrific grades (I rue Signals and Systems to this very day). The point is that colleges are doing a disservice to students that are genuinely interested in STEM careers.
Chemistry for Engineers was not the only weed out class, but it certainly did the most damage. By sophomore year, my class had half as many students and many friends that transferred out cited Chemistry as the main reason. That is not quite right however. The real reason was that it was an incredibly hard program, the grade point averages were poor, and they did not see a light at the end of the tunnel. There was no hope of things improving, so it was easier to simply switch majors.
Most colleges however seem either oblivious to this fact or simply disinterested. They are graduating enough students, they have plenty of graduate students, and the grant money is still flowing. As long as the STEM drop outs change majors, the colleges still get the tuition dollars so there is little incentive to upset the status quo.
As I started out saying, not everyone is meant to follow a technical career. Therefore I can sympathize with some of the thinking by colleges. They want students to figure out where their passions lie before it becomes too late to change majors and graduate on time. Weed out classes during freshman year are one easy way to accelerate the process. Students, who are adults at this point, need to figure out what they are made of and what they are willing to do to succeed and take responsibility for their own choices. But are colleges pushing out students too aggressively?
Over half the people that I graduated with are not in technical positions today. Most went into finance, some into marketing, and others plotted more artistic careers. The caliber of student that applies to STEM majors is simply higher than for other degrees. They are more intelligent, more academically inclined, and generally have more ambitions and interests. They are more equipped to jump into other majors and other fields. It is therefore no surprise that most of my cohort pursued careers outside engineering, but it is disappointing.
That is the most damning indictment against colleges. Not only are they aggressively weeding out quality students, the students that have graduated leave college without any passion or interest in pursuing a career in their majors. I believe that the Times article I quoted above best summarizes the problem; until senior year, most of the programs are so dry and uninspired that students develop no passion for the field. As contradictory as this may sound, colleges are disinterested in the education process, particularly in the engineering and science schools.
Colleges need to start taking an active role in helping and supporting students in STEM fields. This means putting in programs to help students stay committed to STEM programs instead of weeding them out, creating classes and opportunities to foster more practical and creative learning experiences throughout the four years, and actively pushing internships and careers in STEM fields. They need to offer more interdisciplinary studies, provide more opportunities for collaborative and project based work, and offer more courses that enhance critical skills such as communication, writing and creative thinking (which seems dismally lacking in many STEM graduates). Lastly, removing barriers that push students out such as weed out classes and providing a more supportive culture that helps get students adjusted to the new rigors of college STEM classes would be helpful.
Some schools are better at this than others, and even my school has improved markedly since I graduated. However, much more needs to be done if our country is to fill all the job needs and remain the leader in the global economy. It is no longer acceptable for colleges, students, and this nation to settle for the status quo educational program.