LEAST RESISTANCE

Like most universities, my campus was quite dead over the winter break. One of the few academic programs active between the semesters is a graduate program in computer science. It's not a huge program, as we are not a huge institution, but I saw its 20-25 students regularly. I'm not sure how to put this without sounding awkward, so I'll just say it: every student in the class appears to be south Asian (Indian, Pakistani, etc). English is clearly a second language for most or all.

Don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this.

Obviously there is no rule applied to the program that says "No American students allowed" or "White kids need not apply." The reason the program is composed differently than the student body as a whole is, in my opinion, simple: these classes are hard, and most students really don't like doing things that are difficult. This is, again in my opinion, one of the most persuasive explanations for why science, engineering, and technology programs are often made up largely of foreign students at U.S. universities. American and non-American students are both capable of doing the work; the question is who is willing to do the hard, time-consuming work of mastering really difficult subjects. American students as a whole are more interested in getting A's than in learning the most useful skill or picking the most lucrative major.

At a previous institution, we had a joke in the political science department whenever we would lose a major – "And another Marketing major is born!" Students leaving our major were inevitably transferring to Business, Marketing, Criminal Justice, or something with "Administration" in the name. They were choosing those majors not because they have a burning desire to learn about them. They chose them because those majors are easier. To clarify two things: First, there are students who take those majors very seriously and go on to great careers. Second, there are American students who work like sled dogs in college. But my own anecdata have convinced me that there's more to the popularity of these newer majors than legitimate interest.

The numbers don't lie: majors like business and CJ have increased in popularity four- and five-fold since 1970. Math and science majors have held steady, while humanities and social sciences have lost the most popularity. Part of this is no doubt due to the decline of liberal arts education in favor of a more "vocational" approach to higher ed. Majors like Business are perceived as more practical and useful. But students are very strategic when it comes to their grades; all they need to do is spend a few minutes online (or listening to the grapevine) to find out where the Easy A's are. At most universities you're not going to find them in Engineering.

I'll be the first to admit that a major like English or Poli Sci is objectively less difficult than mastering quantum physics, although the comparison is difficult because the skills involved are so different. However, English and Poli Sci both still involve a lot of work – lots of reading, lots of paper writing, and (usually) classes you need to attend to pass the course. Students have complained about their workload for as long as schools have existed, but I am continually amazed at how put off they are by the most basic course requirements these days. We have to read one chapter per week from the textbook? We have to write a ten page paper? No matter how little we ask, it always seems to be too much for some of them.

Everyone teacher has a pet theory about What's Wrong With Education and in most cases we're all too happy to share it. Many of them sound persuasive. But for all the complaints about No Child Left Behind and teacher's unions and standardized testing and whatnot, I can honestly say that I haven't encountered a student who was incapable of doing what was necessary to pass my course more than two or three times in nine years. And that's out of thousands of students. The problem in 99.9% of cases is the lack of willingness to work the amount necessary to get an A or B. There aren't many problems in college that can't be solved by spending more time reading, studying, and working with one's professors.

The prevailing attitude, increasingly, is "Screw it, I'll find some easier classes." Maybe this is the real consequence of NCLB, that it has made students outcome-obsessed to the point that they'd rather get a 3.7 GPA in Basketweaving than a 2.7 GPA in a six-figure major like Electrical Engineering. They seek out (and too easily find) courses that require little reading, post lecture materials online to make attendance all but unnecessary, and replace paper writing with various "projects" slapped together 12 hours before the due date. I don't mean to impugn the intellectual skills of anyone who majors in fields like Business; the issue is that students increasingly look toward majors like that because of the perceived level of difficulty in getting A/B grades, not because they want to learn anything or gain salable skills.

For all the talk among undergraduates about making good money and having a stable career, they certainly aren't flocking to the highest-paid and most employable majors. That is a symptom of the underlying issue – there is much more to it than a lack of interest in the subjects involved.

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44 Responses to “LEAST RESISTANCE”

  1. College Sophomore Says:

    This is an interesting proposal, and I'll admit that as a Math & CS double major who is interested in engineering, I haven't stopped to think why there are so many Asian, and Eastern European students in my Classes and Major. This could very well be it, but what interests me more, is that, if this is the reason why not many students choose a difficult degree, then why aren't there more women in CS or Engineering? There are plenty of smart women, and they are increasingly challenging themselves with more and more difficult majors and jobs. Yet, somehow, there aren't more smart women in CS and Engineering, classes and jobs.

    These two things seem at odds with each other to me, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they aren't at odds with each other at all.

  2. Addicted Says:

    While your post (and anecdata) generally ring true, I think your observation of all the students in the CS dept being south Asian was almost certainly further skewed by the fact that Asian students often tend to stay back in college over the winter break because of the ridiculous costs of traveling home.

    Especially in the winter break season, plane tickets can double or triple from somewhere in the low 1000s upto the 3000s.

  3. Arslan Says:

    While doing a little digging into the question of charter schools, an article debunking the various lies in the idiotic documentary Waiting for Superman pointed out that the decline of people taking science or engineering majors is explained by the inflated pay for jobs in finance and business administration. This is probably not the case in South Asia, which is to say that engineering and computer science jobs are most likely more desirable over there.

    Also just out of curiosity, what would be a typical paper assignment in your class? I mean what would the topic be?

  4. jjack Says:

    I may be wrong, but I think there could be a perception that Business and related majors are lucrative in addition to easy.

    "I'm going to get a degree in business, then I can be the boss, and my company will make a bunch of money and I can pay a lot of it to myself!"

    I had to take one business class (as an engineering major) and it was ridiculous, seriously half the class consisted of motivational slogans. It just seemed like I was in this whole different world with people who did not quite operate on the same plane as I did.

  5. Nan Says:

    Could the increase in Criminal Justice majors possibly be driven by the fact prisons are one of the few growth industries in the U.S.? We do lead the world in per capita incarcerations. Someone's got to guard all those inmates.

  6. Arslan Says:

    @jjack If possible I would suggest a career in motivational speaking for businesses. It's entirely unregulated; there are no standards. All it takes is a talent for bullshit. Businesses have been eating this shit up since the 90's. Just go over some self-help books to get a feel for the material.

  7. Talisker Says:

    @College Sophomore: In a word, sexism. From a very early age, girls have it drummed into them that math and science are not "feminine" subjects. If they overcome that conditioning and try studying CS, they face an unbelievably male-dominated and sexist subculture. Taking a relatively mild example, many tech companies still think it is appropriate to promote their wares at a convention using "booth babes", ie. attractive young women in bikinis. Many women decide it's not worth it and go somewhere less hostile.

    @Arslan: There certainly are well-paid jobs in administration and finance in South Asia. But my understanding is that getting them depends on family connections, even more so than in the West. Computer science and engineering are more of a meritocracy, at least so far as race and social class are concerned.

    So, imagine you're an upper middle-class Pakistani of college age. What would motivate you to travel thousands of miles from your family, endure the winters of the American Midwest, and spend ten times as much in tuition as the same subject would cost in Pakistan? With all due respect to those subjects, I don't think American History or English Literature is going to do it.

    It's also relevant that if a south Asian wants to live and work in the USA after graduation, the best chance of getting a visa is to study CS, science or engineering.

  8. Seth Says:

    Ed, I think the reason for lots of non-native-Americans in computer science (and the STEM fields generally) is a little different from your explanation. The folks who hire STEM graduates (with BS or MS degrees) have a financial interest in producing students/workers who won't fight about salary. So they like having non-native students who won't fight about pay and benefits at the risk of their visas. So corporations and even grant-funded labs get a cheap workforce out of it; grad programs help their universities build their "international" and "diversity" cred.

  9. middle seaman Says:

    Have been at a CS department for 30 years. Undergraduate are mainly Americans. Graduate students the last several years are foreign students. There way more American in the past. You have Chinese, Korean, Indian and Arab students. I would attribute their flocking to CS to the the obvious disregard for liberal arts and even business majors in their respective countries.

    These student will argue every less than A grade as long as you will allow them, even an A-. The best behaved, the hardest working and best English speakers are Arab students. Women are in large numbers and they are as good and as hard working as any student. They are also way less argumentative and demanding. They basically do well.

  10. Talisker Says:

    @Seth:

    The folks who hire STEM graduates (with BS or MS degrees) have a financial interest in producing students/workers who won't fight about salary.

    Sort of, but I don't think that non-STEM employers are any more noble than STEM ones. So why not hire cheap overseas graduates to be lawyers or corporate bureaucrats? Two non-exclusive possibilities:
    * Language and culture barriers are more substantial. Somebody can code extremely well without much grasp of English, but obviously this doesn't apply to a trial lawyer. Of course, "you don't have the cultural background to do the job" is sometimes (but not always) code for simple racism.
    * Some of these jobs are not actually producing anything useful. The people who do them are sucking value out of the system, rather than adding it. If this is the case, then clearly there is no demand to import extra people to do these jobs.

  11. Seth Says:

    @Talisker: I agree. I don't think our arguments are mutually exclusive. You're explaining why that kind of economic, er, motivation is simpler and more common in STEM than in law. OK. No gripe with that. I'm not sure what "nobility" has to do with anything. I didn't say a word about the motivations of people from other countries to come here for poorly paid STEM work.

    Law has its own way of milking more work out of people; I've read dozens of accounts in the last couple of years, for example, about how junior female lawyers are experiencing "clerical creep," being asked to do secretarial work on top of their actual lawyering. And kind of like tenure requirements for us academics, the requirements for making partner in a law firm are so oblique and enigmatic that anybody who wants to make it is going to overperform like mad because there's no way to know when you've done enough.

  12. julie Says:

    Your point is generally true but CS grad students aren't a great example.

    There is zero financial incentive for a US citizen with a BS in CS to pursue a graduate degree. You can get a great job with a BS. When you factor in opportunity costs, the MS and PhD are a net minus financially. A few highly motivated Americans still get those degrees, presumably because they love research enough to give up the higher standard of living and the chance to strike it rich at a start up.

    Immigrant tech workers generally need at least an MS to qualify for a visa to work in the US. So if you're a SE Asian CS student who wants to make big money in silly valley, you've gotta get the MS.

    Go to any tech company and you'll find a bunch of citizens w/ BSes and a bunch of foreign nationals with MSes.

  13. Graham Says:

    The reason is simple: these students are coming from Third World countries and are prepared to to anything, even work hard, to achieve a First World education and standard of living.

    Their parents impress this upon them early.

    First World students, who already have a high standard of living, are slacking off and taking the easy options. And there certainly are some easy ones – degree in surfing, anyone?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1425695.stm

  14. Talisker Says:

    @Seth: I was talking about "nobility" of employers, not employees. My point (which I admit I was expressing rather facetiously) is that non-STEM employers would also be willing to hire cheap, vulnerable overseas employees if it helped the bottom line.

  15. c u n d gulag Says:

    Years ago, if you graduated with any Liberal Arts degree, companies looked at you and saw potential.
    You had passed muster and gotten a BA degree, so that meant that you were trainable – also malleable, flexible, and ductile.

    Yes, young-un's, companies actually used to train people to do their jobs. So did unions.
    They used to spend a lot of time and money, doing so.

    Flash-forward to today.
    Companies don't want to spend the time, and especially the money, recruiting and training – they want people who are fairly ready for their jobs, with a minimal amount of recruiting and training.

    Hence, the Liberal Arts degrees are worth less. Science, Engineering, and Technology, more.

    But companies still put a premium on Business Majors.
    Why?
    Because over the years, companies went from being headed by former Liberal Arts students, to people who got degrees in Business and Finance.

    My friends and I in the corporate world who weren't Business majors used to laugh at the stupid, by-the-book, dipshits coming out of Business schools, and joining the work-force.
    They had no practical work experience.
    And they didn't want to learn what's-what in the real world. They just wanted to force what they'd learned in school, on everyone else.

    Little did we know, that they'd be laughing at US later.
    They rose through the ranks, no matter how many times they screwed-the-pooch.
    The people on top had Business degrees, and had taken over, and watched over their fellow Business majors.
    They all spoke the same language.
    We Liberal Arts folks, didn't.

    I was a Training Manager at a telecommunications company.
    I saw kids, coming out of good colleges with Liberal Arts degrees, and all they could find was work in Sales or Customer Service.

    I saw kids coming out of 2nd-rate Business schools, who were fast-tracked for upper management positions.

    Fair?
    I think not.

    But, that today's world.
    You either fit what companies are looking for, or you get a shitty, low-paying positions, dealing with customers.

    EWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!

    Nobody with a Business degree wants to stoop so low, as to have to deal with customers!

    They want to force their Business School "larnin'" on the world – not deal with the actual purchasers of their products.

    Leave that to the Liberal Arts muggles.

  16. cat Says:

    Have any of you ever even talked to any "Asian" STEM students studying in the US???

    They mostly come to the US because the number of applicants at orders of magnitude more then the number of slots in the local universities. The STEM programs in Pakistan/India have a lower acceptance rate then our ivy leagues.

  17. Hobbes Says:

    American CS PhD student here (I'm also a woman, FWIW). Our department consists of roughly a quarter East Asian students, a quarter South Asian students, and the other half is mostly American with some other international minorities – though proportions might be closer to thirds. Doctorates are generally awarded in those proportions, judging only by names, but it's also interesting to note which areas attract which nationalities.

    It seems (I haven't aggregated data, so this is entirely speculative) that the international students tend toward the more technical fields – databases, systems – while the domestic students (myself included) end up in fields with more… interdisciplinary focus. Both artificial intelligence (crossovers with linguistics, psychology, biology) and human-computer interaction (psychology, engineering) seem to draw both more Americans and more women.

    I'll agree with Julie that in the technical subfields of CS, it just doesn't make sense for American students to get graduate-level education. You usually end up with a lower salary than someone with a bachelors, messed up as that is, unless you land a really sweet industry research gig,and you usually need a PhD for that. There are MORE research gigs for these crossover fields, because most of them are pretty new and universities are still building their departments. It just makes more career sense.

    That being said, our department is starting up a professional Masters program (catering to the tech companies in town) and it'll be interesting to see what sort of students that attracts.

  18. Hazy Davy Says:

    1) At my undergraduate (entirely STEM) school, the term "CJ" referred to a Computer Jock. That was someone who, even by nerd terms, spent too much time with their PC. That made it a little hard to parse: "majors like business and CJ have increased in popularity four- and five-fold since 1970."

    2) Since I take everything personally, I wonder what pursuing an MBA after an engineering undergrad would imply to folks who don't know me. [Hint: I actually thought I'd learn the fundamentals of starting and running a business…]

    3) There are very few rules-of-thumb that I would like my son to know about college. But among them:
    – Your GPA will only matter for your first job after college, and for me to monitor how hard you're working. Don't get straight As. And don't slack.
    – When I went to college, the fact is that your major was largely irrelevant. You just needed to demonstrate the discipline to complete a 4-5 year effort in some discipline. Now, it matters a bit more. STEM is pretty much all that matters for undergrad. [I think I'm serious, here. You do need to learn to communicate, as well. But even as a STEM major, you can take plenty of English courses.]
    – Do not miss out on the non-academic learning of college. You are privileged enough to be here, and that experience is something your grandparents would have killed for.

    4) And WHY are kids looking for the easy A? NCLB is, I suspect, a sociological symptom. We suck at measuring and at determining appropriate metrics, to create the right incentives. Any metric we use is immediately gamed. This morning, I'm thinking that maybe the solution is to change the measurements commonly used, every 2-3 years.

  19. railsplitter Says:

    Many good comments already made in this thread. But to Ed's point on undergraduate STEM majors –

    My perspective is unique in that I was the only graduate in my class ('84) with a degree in Computer Engineering and a minor in Music Theory & Creative Writing. Neither the Engineering or Humanities camps knew what to do make of me. Over the years it's clear to me that the ability to write well has served me more in my career than the technical knowledge learned in college. I agree with @c u n d gulag on his point about Humanities vs Administration degrees.

    But there's another reason why kids today are shying away from STEM degrees. During the go-go 90's technical graduates were treated like gold, with great salaries, benefits, and opportunity for professional growth. Corporate America didn't take kindly to empowered employees who reciprocated the idea that the loss of the social contract between employer/employee can cut both ways.

    So Corporate America introduced the H1B worker. Within a span of a decade, employment of native STEM workers dropped by 1/3, all of whom were displaced by over 1 million guest workers. A collateral effect is seen in the drop of STEM enrollment in this country. After all, why knock your brains out in a difficult course of study, only to find yourself in competition with an East Asian guest worker begging for the opportunity to work for half of your starting salary.

    The only reason you don't see this trend in Medicine or Law is due to the professional Licensure requirements which protect the domestic work force (though that is starting to show some cracks in the wall).

    Just sayin'.

  20. Burning River Says:

    @Hazy Davy

    As the holder of a MBA (and the associated debt) I can tell you that it will most likely imply that you can be easily separated from money for little benefit in return.

    Depending on what you want to do with your career, and life, you may be better served seeking out a project management or similar certification once you start your career.

  21. BProf Says:

    The relative rigor of business schools vary across universities. I'm a professor in a business school at a large regional public university. We're the kind of university where most of the students would really rather not be there but they do want a job and most halfway-decent jobs require a college degree. A business major is often a reasonable choice in those situations.

    Interestingly, we are actually tougher graders than most of the university based on average grade given by department (although not engineering and STEM). My theory is that it's a mix of two things, (1) since demand is high we can afford to lose the majors that switch out of business and (2) that culturally, business schools have less of a problem having students compete for good grades. There are some departments (such as in Education) where everyone gets an "A" so that everyone has a positive experience in the class.

    It doesn't have to be this way. It was reversed at my undergraduate institution.

    I'll also defend business majors a bit. Sure there's lots of woo woo stuff, but things like accounting, business law and basic finance can be very useful whether you work in business or not.

  22. BProf Says:

    I need to learn to proof before I post – can't edit here :(

  23. Major Kong Says:

    I majored in Electrical Engineering back in the early 1980s and I recall a lot of South Asian students (as well as a few professors) even back then.

  24. MS Says:

    I remember, back in the day, taking a look at the Physics 101 (Introductory Physics) courses.

    For engineers, Physics 101 was a hard, calculus-based class involving extensive calculation and a great many problems completed. Light, electromagnetism, vectors, forces. Many hours per week of homework.

    For other majors, the same class (listed exactly the same on the transcript) was something like "learn to appreciate light and movement". No calculus, no problems, no math really at all. The transcript was the SAME. The course catalog said very specifically that engineers were not allowed to take the second course, and everyone else wasn't allowed to take the first one.

    So basically, for ten times the work, the engineers all got C's, while for 1/10th the work, everyone else all got A's. In what was to the rest of the world, shown as the exact same course.

    Can't imagine why some students might feel like that was less than fair.

  25. negative 1 Says:

    Normally I agree with everything on this blog but I disagree with this one. Business degrees are the new liberal arts. Most middle class kids dream of working white collar jobs, and most of those are corporate jobs with the word "analyst" in the title. They require no real education to do, but a 'business' degree has become shorthand for 'we can teach them excel and whatever in-house program we use'.
    Meanwhile, with manufacturing drying up how much engineering is there? Sure there will be those making money, but here in the northeast there will be gobs who can't find a job. I speak of this from experience. Even when I was majoring in engineering, professors told me the field was cyclical.
    Ultimately people will seek to make the most money for the least work. It's not the lazy students — the job market is pushing people in this direction. Engineering is a trade degree, ultimately. It's not a stupid or even lazy decision to not specialize if not specializing increases your chances of landing a job.

  26. Rich Says:

    Computer science and engineering aren't necessarily occupational sure things. I bought my last car from an engineer. Engineering fields get hit hard when there are changes in technology or changes in military spending that affect industries and skill sets like aeronautics. Computer science is a field that is subject to rapid obsolescence and the cultures from which these people come often puts more emphasis on getting a credential than renewing one. Vocationalist notions about education are a trap and its sad to see an academic fall into it.

    In the institutions where I did my academic training and post-doc work, poly sci always was a weakling. Sociologists tend to look down on political science in terms of methodological rigor and lack of attention to political economy. Psychologists find the efforts at psychologizing to be amusing at best. Historians feel like it misses the point. In other words, at the right campus, you could be getting the people too lazy to major in something that presents itself as having more rigor.

  27. Vinny Says:

    Ha! 2.7 GPA in Mechanical Engineering. That was me precisely. It's kind of embarrassing how hard I worked for that GPA. We used to make fun of the easy majors. Never mind communications, we used to make fun of Civil Engineers. Sorry about that, Civies. Funny thing is, other engineering majors make fun of CE's according to my daughter who is a recent grad in Chemical Engineering. I think we always regarded Chem E's as the hardest major.

  28. Hazy Davy Says:

    @Burning River,

    I suppose I should have taken a few more written communication classes..
    I chose to earn my MBA after an undergraduate degree in Engineering. I earned my MBA in '99. By my calculation, the NPV of my MBA was about $111K at graduation. [Plus, it credentialed me to do some interesting work when the startup demand for business-aware nerds was greater than the supply.]

  29. Jerry Vinokurov Says:

    Speaking as someone who actually got a Ph.D. in a STEM subject (physics), I can tell you that for the most part, a STEM Ph.D. is for suckers, or for people who can't live without research. But mostly suckers. It only makes sense for foreign students because it's a chance for them to get in on the American market. In general, actually, STEM careers are not particularly "lucrative." It's much better to be the asshole who manages the engineers than to be an engineer yourself, something American students have long since realized.

  30. Burning River Says:

    @Hazy Davy

    Well, you definitely did a nice job in your finance classes, I imagine.

    I received my MBA in late 2006, after getting laid of from my mega-corp and putting the severance package to good use. The payback period on mine, obviously, was much less lucrative. Hence my jaded view.

  31. Tim Says:

    I don't know if I buy that technical subjects are necessarily harder than non-technical subjects. I just think that it's harder to fool yourself into thinking you're doing ok: you can convince yourself that a mediocre essay is good work, but if your programming assignment doesn't work, it keeps on reminding you every time you run it.

  32. rustonite Says:

    All y'all need to update your references on the STEM job market. It's still good for some kinds of CS, but in the last decade the bottom has fallen out of engineering in the US. The number of EEs working in the US has declined 7%. That's not a decline as a percent of the population, or a decline in openings, it's a decline in the total number of positions. There's no reason most day to day engineering can't be done in India or China- after all, that's where the manufacturing is.

  33. NonyNony Says:

    You're missing out a lot in your analysis. Start with the fact that you're talking graduate students – there is no reason for an American citizen to get a grad degree in CS if all they want to do is get a job as a software developer. An undergrad degree is sufficient to get the job. If you're going to get a "professional" degree in CS, then you're going to be working for a company that is paying for it as a professional development benefit, and you're going to be attending a college that gears itself towards professional CS degrees (instead of research degrees). "Midwestern Liberal Arts University" is probably not this kind of institution.

    On the other hand, there is TONS of incentive for a non-American to get a grad degree in CS from any American institution – even "Midwestern Liberal Arts University", which may not be known for its CS program. For starters, there's the fact that American Higher Ed enjoys a substantial prestige benefit internationally (our admins are trying to kill that, but for now it's still there), and many foreign governments have scholarships specifically to send their students to American universities to get degrees and then come back. Then there are the students who want to work for a big US Tech company – the best way for a non-American to do that is to work on a graduate degree and get an internship at Big US Tech Company. I've watched quite a few grad students come in, start the program, get 2-3 years in, then abandon it because their internships went well and the companies they interned at decided to sponsor them for a Green Card in exchange for coming to work for them full-time.

    So it isn't that the classes are "too hard" for Americans, it's that the incentives don't align the right way. Americans don't need to get advanced degrees to get the jobs, foreign students do. Those Americans who want advanced degrees for professional development reasons attend universities/colleges that cater specifically towards professional development, not general liberal arts colleges or, frankly, big Research I institutions either. The Americans who are getting advanced degrees that aren't professional development degrees have an eye on either research or teaching as an end goal. There are a lot fewer of those than there are foreign students looking to get the access to an American job or foreign students getting essentially paid by their home countries to go get degrees and come home to build new industries/teach locally. It's mostly that simple. And it's why you don't see the same behavior among the liberal arts side – not that the classes are hard, but there is no incentive for foreign students to enroll if they're looking for a leg up on their future careers.

  34. Leading Edge Boomer Says:

    @College Sophomore: And others, this is a fine explanation why there are so few women in computing:
    https://www.cerias.purdue.edu/site/blog/post/were_out_of_balance/

  35. jazzbumpa Says:

    Just a couple of brief comments.

    When I was getting my B.S. in Chemistry, 1964-8 there was exactly 1 female engineering student at he University of Toledo. From what I learned talking to new hires about 15 years ago, in the 90's half the Chem E students at MI Tech were female. Only marginally related data points, but I know there are A LOT more female engineers now than 40 years ago.

    At the same time, Engineering has devolved from being a career to being a job. Lots of engineers in the Detroit area work for contract houses rather than on-role at car companies.

    That sort of a disincentive.

    FWIW.

    JzB

  36. Sam240 Says:

    "I'll be the first to admit that a major like English or Poli Sci is objectively less difficult than mastering quantum physics, although the comparison is difficult because the skills involved are so different." — Ed

    My experience is that this position is rubbish. I graduated summa cum laude from a top ten liberal arts college with a B.A. in Chinese (language and literature) and a minor in philosophy, then managed a 4.0 at a flagship state university (and AAU member) while earning a B.S. in physics. I can assure you that the humanities classes were much tougher than the physics and mathematics classes I had to take. For one thing, there are objective criteria in the sciences. (At the liberal arts college, I found the math-based science classes to be easy A's.)

    However, I have learned that the science and math classes are generally designed to be as boring as possible. There was ample teacher-student interaction in the lower-level humanities and social science courses that I took. On the other hand, even in the upper-level physics and math classes, classes consisted of listening to lectures, with the instructors basically repeating the contents of the textbook. If you had no interest in science coming into the classes, the instructors weren't going to do anything to stoke your interest.

    In one upper-level philosophy class I took, we had two major research papers and a class presentation on a third topic — and the research required the use of French-language sources. The physics classes were basically one problem set after another.

    There was a grand total of one upper-level laboratory class, which was the only upper-level science class which required any essays. One of the lab stations was a replication of a ninety-year-old experiment, and another station was a series of short experiments from a prepackaged kit. In both cases, there was nothing unknown beforehand that needed to be discovered; the results were entirely predictable. Even with a 4.0 GPA in the science and math classes, I was prohibited from working on a thesis because I already had a B.A. from my first institution.

    I went into the physics program unsure of whether I wanted to study it, and left it with a deep-seated hatred of the subject. (Why couldn't I have gone to graduate school in Chinese? I was accepted at first, but then I had a head injury. Afterwards, there were some times when I could go whole days without being able to use the language, and other times when I had severe panic reactions when I saw anything from Chinese culture. Because of this, the program I was going to attend rescinded its offer of admission.) I took fourteen or fifteen upper-level classes to get the physics degree, and I hated each and every one of them. I barely escaped the physics program with my sanity intact. There was no way I was even going to consider applying to graduate programs in physics.

    If my experience with science is typical, it would explain why very few Americans go into graduate programs in the STEM fields.

  37. Benny Lava Says:

    You could look at it that way. Or you could look at the numbers. The number of engineering grads hasn't increased over the last 30 years. So that means engineering has gotten more exclusive. At your school too. Next let's look at the population of China, India, and Southeast Asia. Around 2.5-3 billion people, right? So wouldn't you expect an international degree like physics or engineering to reflect the global industrial economy?

    Or you and Bill O'Reilly can bitch about the kids these days and how China does it better.

  38. Redleg Says:

    I'm gonna launch a bit of a defense of business school. First, let me explain my own experience:
    I started out as a chemistry major and carried a 2.77 GPA through 3 years of chemistry, physics, and calculus. I wasn't a stellar student and I worked part-time, but I did okay. I switched to political science and earned my B.S. in Political Science. After serving as an Army officer, I went to work in analytical chemistry and then earned a Masters degree in Human Resource Management at one of the better state school HR programs at the time. I then went on to earn a Ph.D. in Management from a solid program. Now I earned much better grades in grad school than as an undergrad, but that wasn't because the work was easier, it was because I learned how to learn more effectively and managed my time better.

    I have been teaching management to undergrads and graduate students at a medium sized Midwestern regional university for just over 10 years now. At my university, undergrad business students can major in the main business disciplines like management, marketing, accounting, finance, and economics but all students take core courses in each of those disciplines. From my experience, many of the core and upper-division courses are relatively challenging. In my own management courses, few students earn As and the bulk earn Bs and Cs with a few getting Ds and Fs. The class average is usually around 75%-80%. Most students would not find the courses easy, although there are certain professors who do give out more As than any of the other grades. Perhaps they're just great professors?

    Anyway, I am somewhat offended when people refer to business courses as easy As or fluff or B.S. or even useless or not-realistic. Speaking for my discipline, we have a solid body of empirical research on which to base our teaching. The biggest challenge we have, in my opinion, is helping students to take what they learn in class and develop skill in applying it appropriately in the workplace.

    Business students come with all sorts of different motivations. Some students are clearly very bright and committed to learning and mastering their discipline. Others are simply there to get the sheepskin and move on. Some are in between- perhaps less committed at first but over time become better students.

    Anyway, just thought I'd add my 2-cents to represent my own discipline.

  39. April Says:

    This
    "So Corporate America introduced the H1B worker. Within a span of a decade, employment of native STEM workers dropped by 1/3, all of whom were displaced by over 1 million guest workers. A collateral effect is seen in the drop of STEM enrollment in this country. After all, why knock your brains out in a difficult course of study, only to find yourself in competition with an East Asian guest worker begging for the opportunity to work for half of your starting salary."
    is exactly right.

    I'm STEM (Ph.D. physiology) and I worked for a research company who would hire an Asian for half the salary an American would need and then would place an employment ad in a VERY obscure publication with EXACTLY the precise experience of that Asian. When the 500 (seriously – I was the one who read them!) CV's from qualified but not exactly-to-the-word-of-the-ad Americans came in the company would complain to the government that they couldn't find a qualified American so needed to hire this Asian. H1B visas for everyone!

    I also worked for a small, private college. When they had a tenure-track biology professorship opening they literally got a whole classroom-full of CV's. They stopped actually looking at them and just put them into cardboard boxes. When it came time to choose a candidate they just picked one box at random and chose from that.

    It's been a corporate lie for decades that America has a lack of scientists. Maybe the word is finally out. I know I always told my students (when I taught college) not to go into science because there just were no jobs.

    Now I live in China and work for a company which runs high school programs for students who want to go to US universities. (In a nice twist of fate we international people are paid 10X the rate the Chinese in the same company get! Oh, and we have jobs… ameson.org) There are a couple of reasons why Chinese parents want their kids to study in the west:

    1) First of all, even the Chinese admit that western universities are much better than Chinese unis. The Chinese education system is primary school = hard, middle school = harder, high school = super hard, then after a three-day exam (the Gaokao) students are accepted into Chinese unis based on score. After that it's easy-peasy. Employers know that students learn essentially nothing at the university and that they will have to be trained on the job, but they choose students from the best unis they can get knowing those students are smart enough and can work hard enough when they have to. (This causes a problem for students in our program – and other programs like them – because no matter what we all say, the Chinese students will NOT believe that American Universities are HARD. It's a rude awakening for them, and many fail.)

    2) In many cases the plan is to get the student settled in the west as a means to have the option for later emigration by the rest of the family. Students in one class I taught here admitted that 29 out of 30 of them had no plans to come back to China.

    As to why Chinese (and other Asian) students are overrepresented in STEM is because their education is so strongly math-based (typically Chinese students spend 10-15 hours a week studying math, sometimes in two or more languages. I had several students who had 10 hours in Chinese, 5 hours in English, and another 4 on Saturday in Korean!) so the sciences – especially chemistry and physics – are easy for them.

    If I were entering college today I'd definitely go the business route. Much better potential for good employment, if not nearly as much fun as science.

  40. quixote Says:

    In response to the first comment by CS (and maybe others have also answered, I haven't read the other comments yet, just flying off at the handle here):

    Do you have any idea of the levels of harassment and discrimination that women face in CompSci and most engineering? Plus, it's getting worse. That's why the proportion of female students in those fields has actually fallen since about 2000 or 2001.

  41. evodevo Says:

    In reference to .. "Students have complained about their workload for as long as schools have existed, but I am continually amazed at how put off they are by the most basic course requirements these days. We have to read one chapter per week from the textbook? We have to write a ten page paper? No matter how little we ask, it always seems to be too much for some of them. "

    I had a Doonesbury cartoon hanging on my freshman Zoo lab bulletin board back in the '80's that addressed just this topic in Trudeau's brilliant fashion – doubt I can find it now on the net, but it showed a history lecturer talking about the decline in class standards and workload, and at the final panel the single student in the audience objecting to the three, count 'em 3, required supplemental reading books.
    Very amusing to me – don't know if many of my students thought it was humorous.

  42. railsplitter Says:

    A final comment on why folks won't go into STEM fields:
    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2014/01/george-lucas-eric-schmidt-steve-jobs-go-jail.html

  43. Barry Says:

    My comments –

    First, anybody who seriously uses STEM as a meaningful category is just plain wrong. That compares the BS in math with the MS in engineering with the post-doc in biology with the BS in CS with the Ph.D. in Chem E,…., degrees and levels which have incredibly different requirements and outlooks. It's like somebody talking about life in 'Africa'.

    Second, the switch to business is indeed vocational, and rational. Please remember that students today have seen, in some cases twice (from their parents) just how undervalued STEM degrees are. They've watched the bottom fall out a few years ago, and they've likely watched their parents' careers get destroyed. Both engineers and CS majors are considered highly disposable and perishable commodities (save for the top students from the top few schools, who are in a different world).
    In the sciences, it's worse – most are unemployable without a Ph.D., and Ph.D.'s are only employable as post-docs (i.e., low paid temp workers).

    Third, given the massive competition, rapid obsolescence and total unwillingness of employers to train/retrain/even consider older engineers, an engineering degree is a poor investment.

    Fourth, 'six figure degree' is bullsh*t. By that standard being an actor is a 8-figure field, because several actors earn that much. BTW, look at http://www.engr.psu.edu/career/students/averagesalaries.aspx
    the starting salaries haven't budged much from 2011-12 to 2012-13 (some went down a touch). In real terms, the starting salaries dropped ~2%.

  44. Barry Says:

    "The numbers don't lie: majors like business and CJ have increased in popularity four- and five-fold since 1970."

    BTW, CJ also reflects the massive growth in police, and the fact that being an officer now requires a degree.