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Into the Eye of the Storm

Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand

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Document date: October 29, 2007
Released online: October 29, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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Recent policy reports claim the United States is falling behind other nations in science and math education and graduating insufficient numbers of scientists and engineers. Review of the evidence and analysis of actual graduation rates and workforce needs does not find support for these claims. U.S. student performance rankings are comparable to other leading nations and colleges graduate far more scientists and engineers than are hired each year. Instead, the evidence suggests targeted education improvements are needed for the lowest performers and demand-side factors may be insufficient to attract qualified college graduates.


Policymakers and industry leaders are once again concerned about the adequacy of the science and engineering (S&E) workforce. A growing number of reports claim that a lack of sufficient numbers of scientists and engineers entering the workforce is threatening the United States' economic health and dominant position in global innovation. The primary causes of an impending workforce shortage, it is argued, are the mediocre preparation of domestic students in the educational pipeline and an ongoing decline in their interest in pursuing S&E careers. To address the assumed crisis, the consensus recommendation of business groups, public policymakers, and educators is to expand and improve science and math education from kindergarten through college, and to more aggressively court foreign S&E students and workers.

This paper examines the assumptions about the state of the educational pipeline and the purported workforce shortages. Despite this nearly universal support for upgrading science and math education, our review of the data leads us to conclude that, while the educational pipeline would benefit from improvements, it is not as dysfunctional as believed. Today's American high school students actually test as well or better than students two decades ago. Further, today's students take more science and math classes, and a large number of students with strong science and math backgrounds graduate from U.S. high schools and start college in S&E fields of study. Graduate schools have an ample pool of qualified four-year graduates to draw from but seem unable or unwilling to do so. Surprisingly few of the many students who start along the path toward S&E careers take the next steps to remain in an S&E career. If there is a problem, it is not one of too few S&E qualified college graduates but, rather, the inability of S&E firms to attract qualified graduates. The pool of graduates with an S&E degree exceeds the number of S&E job openings each year, even though employers may not be as successful as they would like in attracting or retaining graduates into an S&E career.

The various policy reports focusing on increasing the science and math preparation at the K–12 level almost uniformly fail to ask the question our analysis suggests—has the increase in the absolute numbers of secondary school graduates and the increase in their math and science performance levels provided an adequate number of domestic S&E college majors?

The pool of S&E-qualified secondary and postsecondary graduates is several times larger than the number of annual job openings. The flow of secondary school students up through the S&E pipeline, when it reaches the labor market, supplies occupations that make up only about a twentieth of all workers. So even if there were deficiencies in students' average science and math performance, such deficiencies would not necessarily deplete the requisite supply of S&E college majors. Even if modal test scores or course-taking was by some measure low, the size of the graduating student body is so large that there would still be a sufficient number of students who test above average and who are fully qualified for the relatively small number of S&E jobs. While improving average math and science education at the K–12 level may be warranted for other reasons, such a strategy may not be the most efficient means of supplying the S&E workforce.

Our analysis at the aggregate level does not find a shortage of potential S&E students or workers. However, this conclusion is put forth with one caveat: the analysis of all S&E students and workers may not apply equally to the trends and problems faced in specific fields or by domestic minority groups. A fine-grained analysis of specific industries, occupations, and populations is needed to identify the weakness in the U.S. education system. We are, indeed, conducting this level of analysis for future reports. The S&E world includes a broad range of knowledge, types of related jobs, and a great diversity of students and workers with academic performance and employment trends different from the overall averages. A better understanding of S&E workforce demand and education and workforce development will identify areas where public and private policy could be most effectively targeted.

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