Humanities Grade Inflation Is Luring Away Millions Of Potential Scientists

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Employers and government officials wring their hands about the lack of skilled STEM graduates in America. Salaries and employment opportunities are both higher for these fields. Plus with all of the horror stories about liberal arts degrees you would expect people to flock to the sciences.

Many students come into school with the intention of getting a science degree, but relatively few students end up sticking with it, a ccording to  a  new NBER paper from Ralph and Todd Stinebrickner.

There are a few reasons for that. Students are overoptimistic about graduating in general; they're overoptimistic that they'll stick with a science major if they start out in one; and more think they'll switch into science than actually do.  

But the big one that helps explain the rest is that they have major misperceptions about how well they can do academically in science. 

This chart shows how likely students think it is that they'll major in any given field (bottom) versus the actual likelihood that they'll end up sticking with it. There's a huge gap between initial perceptions and reality for science:

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NBER

Ralph and Todd Stinebricker


Basically, students find out very quickly that their future grades aren't going to be nearly as high as expected. The researchers attribute this to them learning about their ability in science, rather than lacking the will to study.

Not everyone is good at science or well enough prepared when they enter college, and maybe some people who switch, should. But that first C is a shock to the system, especially compared with the As that you see from classmates majoring in the humanities. People worry about their ability to be competitive for jobs or graduate schools and end up switching early on in their college careers. 

On average, humanities majors have GPAs 0.4 points higher than those who study science on a 4.0 scale:

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Grade inflation

Rojstaczer and Healy

Science education can and should be rigorous, but it shouldn't come with a built-in opportunity cost that scares people away. Before we talk about creating more science majors, we need either  to better prepare students in high school or make introductory science courses easier — or make humanities courses harder.

Thumbnail image via REUTERS/Jason Reed



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