cially among the top black students. However, that was not true at twoyear colleges, where there were no statistical differences between black students and other students. Bettinger did not analyze the differences in these indicators between men and women or between domestic and international students, though both of these factors could influence the results.


One factor in students’ decisions about majors is the amount of money they potentially could earn after graduation. About three-quarters of college students respond in surveys that an important objective of a college education is to be “well off financially” (Pryor et al., 2011), and colleges have an increased focus on vocational offerings, particularly at two-year colleges.

The data suggest that students who switch to a non-STEM major could have been making a calculated decision about where the financial return to a major might be higher than with a STEM major, Bettinger said. For example, women’s earnings in business and in other fields were higher than they were in STEM fields at the time these data were gathered, though men’s earnings in STEM fields, business, and the social sciences were roughly the same.

High average earnings indicate similarly high levels of demand for workers, and superstar earnings indicate a demand for a large pool of professionals to produce a small number of superstars. For example, computer science, which is a field with obvious earnings growth and superstar earnings, was experiencing a substantial growth in majors at the time the data were gathered, Bettinger noted.


During one of the discussion periods at the summit, Catherine Didion from the National Academy of Engineering pointed out that underrepresented students and women are interested in giving back to their communities but often do not see STEM fields as occupations that enable them to do so. Additional investigations could indicate why so many of these students switch into non-STEM fields.

Martha Kanter, under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized the importance of mentors and advisers in keeping students on track. Many students take courses they do not need, or they have unclear pathways. Students need sophisticated and knowledgeable advice. “Students get lost in the system,” said Kanter. “We have to use technology and people to keep them in the system and keep them highly motivated to succeed.”

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