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Editorial: STEM shortage may be overstated

Throughout all the recent debates concerning the value of a liberal arts education versus a sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, we’ve tended to ignore a critical fact. Not all STEM subjects are equal regarding employment prospect and national need, and in several of these fields, we presently have no real shortage of science and engineering students.

A recent article in the Atlantic outlines six separate time periods when people were claiming the nation faced science and technology workforce shortages since the end of World War II. These range from Eisenhower’s response following the Sputnik launches in 1957 to the defense buildup at the end of the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War era, we have already seen three rounds of perceived shortages, the first two coinciding with technology and public health sector growth, respectively, and the third apparently occurring right now. The shortages in technology and public health sectors were indeed real, but an equally real bust followed, and it’s hard to ignore the potential relevance of the artificial promotion of STEM fields to this bust.

Today, for the sixth period since the end of World War II, the nation is apparently in dire need of STEM students. A look at the labor market, however, suggests quite a different trend. The unemployment rate among scientists and engineers is indeed even higher than it is for lawyers. One wonders, then, if tech companies bemoaning a STEM shortage are merely looking for excuses to export American jobs. Of course, discourse in the media paints a rather different picture in which job prospects for law students have only begun to look at all decent in the past year, whereas we desperately require more students in STEM fields. Until the better projections of this past year, legal analysts were frequently heard citing the relatively poor state of the legal economy, with some even suggesting that students should not attend law school unless they are accepted into the most elite programs. If unemployment rates are any indicator, it seems we should perhaps be giving more cautious advice to those interested in pursuing science and engineering too.

There is little doubt that we do need more talent in STEM fields. Particularly in the field of computer programming, employers tend to claim that there are plenty of mediocre programmers, but not enough good programmers. It is fair on this basis, then, to promote improved mathematics and sciences education in the K-12 years, and we might also justify this push on the basis of poor international performance in these fields. But we should not be arbitrarily pushing for more college students to major in STEM fields without considering the future employment market for students, and it may not be wise to be pushing for it so single-mindedly here at Brown. Indeed, if the value of a STEM concentration is so great, then it should be evident and we wouldn’t need to push it as much as we do. The nature of the discourse surrounding the value of a STEM education could threaten to draw a student away from his or her interests or, likely at a greater cost, from his or her true talents.

We all struggle with finding the balance between pursuing what we love and what will make a tangible difference in a world each of us finds unsatisfactory or flawed in certain respects. This is one of the fundamental challenges of a college education, and certainly it is complex enough without the additional variable that the nation somehow would like us to concentrate in a STEM field. We believe these claims tend to be at least partly political in nature and that Brown University ought not pressure students to pursue a STEM concentrations over any other.



Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to


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