STEM, dumping-ground majors, and “pipeline” metaphors

This morning's blog entry by FSU physicist Paul Cottle illustrates the growth of undergraduate professional majors at the expense of science… and liberal arts. The reason why there aren't large numbers of physics majors at USF isn't the horde in philosophy but the hordes in business or starting out as pre-meds.

I'm not sure what the "right" balance in majors would be for a society. In general, limited-access programs are based less on the notions of what the right number of graduates would be than the costs of a program. Like many universities, mine limits the numbers of students in nursing, where there's at least some evidence of a professional shortage in Florida, while it has no cap on the number of elementary-education majors, which was not one of the key areas of teacher shortages even before the recession. But it's very expensive to run a nursing program when done properly.

Then there's student demand. I've heard that something like a third of undergraduates at USF enter with pre-med desires. So the university has to run enough of the intro science classes to meet those demands. I don't know of any institution that caps pre-meds, but many let the intro courses serve as filters. Business majors at USF have to pass calculus. And so forth.

So what happens when students don't pass the filters or get into limited-entry programs? That's one of the key questions at large public universities. Do disappointed pre-meds head to psychology, liberal arts, education, or some quasi-STEM major where they can use some of the C+ and B- grades they've accumulated in the first year? And would the latter contribute towards what Cottle is suggesting as a reorientation?

I know: Cottle's thinking about a different group of students, those who fly through anything they enroll in. But in public policy terms, as my colleague Erwin Johanningmeier put it, public universities are often treated as utilities, where quantity is important. And when you look at policy arguments, you often see gross numbers of graduates as the key measure.

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One response to “STEM, dumping-ground majors, and “pipeline” metaphors”

  1. CCPhysicist

    The graph shown in Cottle’s blog merely reflects the dot-com bubble and subsequent crash. (I’m still seeing students who took well-paid programming jobs right out of HS and are in college a decade or more later to shift into a profession more stable than that of a Frito-eating code slammer.) It also has an odd time axis. Should be 2002 and then 2012, but I wonder what 2010 looks like.

    The Brooks column he riffs off of is stranger yet. In what universe is Nursing not a technical profession? The one where it is women’s work? And belittling teaching, while complaining about failing schools in his last breath, is bizarre. One reason for the weakness in technical areas is the mere fact that people who used to teach math in elementary school are now making more money in finance and law. We need literate and (especially) numerate people to move from corporate America to teaching America.

    Do you know the answer to your pre-med question at USF? The data should exist. There are, by the way, at least two distinct branch points. One would be when they fail freshman chemistry or organic, so they go elsewhere and never apply to medical school. That major change is something USF can track for you. The other would be when they finish a pre-med major and don’t get into medical school. That would be harder to track because they would presumably go to grad school in biology instead.

    Something similar must happen with engineering, since my students tell me there is quite an attrition rate in the first “real” classes taken by junior engineering majors after they pass physics and calculus, although most come back.

    But, for me, I have no idea where pre-engineering students go when they can’t pass calculus or physics. Most simply withdraw from my class part way into the semester and are never seen again.