20 August 2013

Where are the Canadian STEM students?

A while back I wrote with some details of Canadian educational attainment in Inflated expectations: Are students living in a dream? I've since become interested in the numbers of the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and thought I'd write a supplement to the old post.

Let's start with a highlight that stood out from the old post first. Based on the 2006 Canadian census, and focusing in on the 20 to 24 year old cohort: roughly 78% or so (based on statistics from ACT in Spring 2004, regarding the USA) of high school students expected to get a college or higher degree, but only 35.9% of the above cohort actually got anything of the sort.

I think the 2011 census is now available, but to keep the comparison focused on 2006 (I don't want to redo the old post), I will continue to cite numbers from the 2006 Census [1].

Looking at just the Canadian population between the ages of 20 to 24 years, by highest certificate, diploma or degree attained:

type of highest certificate, diploma or degree attainedtotal [2]% of cohort size
20-24 cohort, total size2,071,895100%
only a high school certificate or equivalent889,27542.9%
no certificate, diploma or degree at all286,05013.8%
some kind of post-secondary qualification (trades certificate, diploma below bachelor level, PhD, etc.)896,57543.3%
some kind of post-secondary qualification (trades certificate, diploma below bachelor level, PhD, etc.) in STEM fields258,30512.5%
some kind of university certificate, diploma or degree344,79516.6%
some kind of university certificate, diploma or degree in STEM fields87,0004.2%

Look at that, unemployment notwithstanding, the education "system" converted only 4.2% of the 20 to 24 cohort into STEM university credentialed workers after a long arduous process for the students involved.

Sure, the STEM university credentialed group represents 25.2% of all those who attained any university credentials at all, but it turns out in the context of the entire cohort, it's just a drop in the bucket. That is seriously concerning especially from an economics policy standpoint.

According to University Completion, "It has long been argued...university graduates, as a group, earn more, on average, than college graduates do", which might imply we ought to "sell" more university education, any university education. "However, recent research suggests the field of study may be more important...One study, for example, found that males with university degrees in academic disciplines—such as the humanities, education, biology, and agriculture science—earned less than half of that earned by males with university degrees in vocational and applied disciplines—such as commerce, medicine, and engineering" (ibid.).

So, not surprisingly, what field you study makes a difference! What's more, "Canadians with scientific degrees tend to earn more. Five years after graduation, engineers earn about $10,000 more annually than fine arts and humanities graduates, and upwards of $5,000 more than social science graduates. These earnings are in line with computer and physical sciences" (Percentage of Graduates in Science, Math, Computer Science, and Engineering).

What the research suggests, then, is that we ought to be "selling" more university education specifically in STEM and commerce fields. It's not just about helping students earn more money after graduation, but as I've noted in the past [3], the very fact the labour market provides greater incentive for a given occupation is evidence there isn't enough people entering that career path in the economy.

So let's get out there and sell more university STEM education!

Easier said than done, of course. Certainly for STEM fields, but to some extent for commerce fields as well (especially economics), a strong basis in math is a pre-requisite to success. That means to get more students into STEM and commerce fields, we may also have to get more students to learn more math and to learn it better as a pre-requisite — and that means high school math.

Therein, I'd argue, lies a big part of the problem with getting more students into STEM fields. It turns out high school math is hard, and getting more students to attain a high-level of math skills is also hard. In fact, "The proportion of Canadian [15 year old] students with high-level mathematics skills dropped slightly between 2003 and 2009" (Students With High-Level Math Skills) — that's six years of stagnation, if not decline.

So where are the Canadian STEM students? Don't be surprised you can't find them: literally over 95% of the 20 to 24 cohort just aren't into STEM.

[1] The numbers in the table were pulled from two Statistics Canada sources: Population 15 years and over by highest certificate, diploma or degree, by age groups (2006 Census), and Major Field of Study - Classification of Instructional Programs, 2000 (13), Highest Postsecondary Certificate, Diploma or Degree (12), Age Groups (10A) and Sex (3) for the Population 15 Years and Over With Postsecondary Studies of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2006 Census - 20% Sample Data.

[2] I should come clean and say that the numbers are off by five (5). I don't really know why, seeing the numbers are pulled straight from Statistics Canada. I assume it has something to do with the normalization adjustments they do to different tables, or some small error in counting. When the numbers are in the millions, I doubt being off by five is a big deal in this particular case.

[3] See Why push math education onto students?

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