Is STEM Education Worth It?

Those contemplating a STEM education may wonder if it is worth all the hard work in terms of career satisfaction, job security, and financial rewards. Governments around the world are investing in STEM education because they see it as vital to their country’s economic growth and sustainability in an increasingly technological world. STEM education in schools is essential to equip young minds to thrive in a rapidly advancing technological world.

For purely return on investment, a university level STEM Degree can pay handsomely in the early stages of a career, though the financial advantage over non-STEM degrees decreases in the later decades of working life.  Other factors like job satisfaction are more subjective, though still worth considering.

Is STEM Education Worth It?

There is a  tendency to evaluate college education in terms of a return on investment paradigm, which focuses on how much people in STEM careers earn compared to other occupations. This financial approach has discouraged many students from studying the liberal arts or social sciences, with some college funding agreements actually making it more expensive to study non-STEM subjects. 

As much as we advocate STEM education, we have to acknowledge it’s not suited to everyone; especially students gifted in arts or humanities subjects such as languages, fine arts, history, music, or drama. These students may be more interested in STEAM, which blends the Arts along with STEM disciplines. What makes a STEM education (and STEAM) worth it depends on several different factors and, ultimately, what a student wants out of life.  Let’s explore.

Is STEM Education At School Level Worth It?

STEM education at the elementary or high school level is definitely worth it because of the cumulative nature of STEM subjects. A grounding in STEM subjects offers a broader array of career choices for developing personalities than an education in purely non-STEM subjects. For instance, a student who has not studied more than the basic math required at the high school level has little hope of pursuing a STEM college degree or career in STEM fields.

STEM subjects can teach mental skills and enhance cognitive development in different areas of the brain compared to non-STEM subjects. 

Learners who have been exposed to technological concepts and thinking from an early age are likely to have an advantage over their peers who have not. STEM education encourages a hands-on, resilient, and experimental approach to problems that can stand students in good stead in later life. They learn that failure is a legitimate aspect of knowledge acquisition and that persistence in dealing with challenges pays off.

The U.S. Department of Education notes STEM education is important in helping students develop problem-solving and decision-making skills based on evaluating gathered evidence, “workers have the ability to understand and solve some of the complex challenges of today and tomorrow, and to meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce, building students’ skills, content knowledge, and fluency in STEM fields is essential.”

STEM education encourages teamwork, innovation, problem-solving, and the practical application of skills and knowledge. It develops critical thinking skills in children that are applicable in all walks of life and promotes positivity and openness towards technology. Older adults that do not have the benefits of a STEM education can be fearful of changes in technology and battle to cope with them.

Young children are surprisingly capable of scientific inquiry. They can observe and predict results, conduct simple investigations and experiments and analyze what they have found. In fact, early childhood is an ideal time to introduce STEM learning when children are naturally curious about everything.

Related Post: Why STEM is important in Early Childhood Education

Research has shown that STEM is important for all children, not just those who are naturally gifted in STEM subjects. There are profound links between language learning and STEM. Early instruction in STEM subjects results in higher literacy and language outcomes. It also ensures sound background knowledge of how the world works.

STEM education also provides children with a set of mental tools and constructs for relating to their physical world. If it is taught using hands-on methods, children can also learn how to use various physical tools such as protractors, compasses, nuts and bolts, tape measures and rulers, spirit levels, and materials of different shapes and sizes. This can develop hand-eye coordination and spatial relations.

In STEM, children learn about the practical uses of computers instead of just using them as a form of entertainment. They can start learning to code from a reasonably young age which could be a valuable skill in later life.

Related Posts:  What is the best age to start coding? and How to start coding.

STEM education provides children with a vocabulary to describe and understand various natural processes, seasons, time, and space. However, it is a mistake to overemphasize STEM at the expense of other subjects in early childhood education.  Young children should have a balanced education consisting of STEM and non-STEM subjects to equip them better to make meaningful subject choices in high school. A healthy balance of subjects is key to producing a well-rounded student who has the necessary skills to survive in a complicated world.

This opens the debate around STEM vs STEAM, though it’s really not a competition (We believe both approaches have value.)  Both STEM and its STEAM variation have the same goal: to provide the best education for students to be successful. 

STEM Degrees and Advancing Technology

Caitlin Zaloom, a cultural anthropologist, notes that the arguments of politicians, policy experts, and the economically minded in favor of STEM imply that children of middle-class families should consider the pursuit of their own interests in college as a luxury. These arguments suggest that higher education is a place to buckle down and study material that will bring solid income and help pay off student debt.

Again, this is considering a path of study based primarily on anticipated financial returns.

Zaloom says that this view of college is little more than higher-level vocational education for these young people and anoints them as “the yeoman workers” of the corporate economy. Zaloom argues that colleges and universities should provide the materials for students to cultivate their potential, not just to obtain the targeted cognitive skills offered by STEM education.

Related Post: Do STEM Careers require a college degree?

In her view, colleges and universities should enhance students’ ability to experiment and prepare them for an open and likely uncertain future and broaden their reach to become engines of lifelong learning. She goes as far as to say that the more that technologies change the job market, the better it will be to have a non-STEM degree. However, this point of view does not seem to take sufficient account of the fact that technological developments are not restricted to STEM careers and that they are becoming increasingly influential in the arts too.

Technology Advances Affect both STEM and No-STEM fields

Computer games, virtual reality software, and architecture are obvious areas where computer sciences and art collide, but there are many other areas in which technology is playing an increasingly important role. Historians and archaeologists are using sophisticated technologies such as LIDAR, thermal imaging such as FLIR, and soil analysis. Laser ablation and the application of bacteria are being used in art restoration.

Many artists and designers are using 3D printing technology in their artworks. Computer technology and medical tools such as CT scanners are being used in art preservation and conservation. If distinct lines between arts and sciences existed in previous centuries, they are becoming increasingly blurred in this one.

Advanced digital technology is changing the ways people create and enjoy art and music, and the internet is making them more accessible than ever before. Paintbrushes are giving way to laser beams. Software programs and digital pens offer new palettes for artists to work with. Artists are increasingly turning to technology and new materials to express themselves and their ideas.

A STEM education is designed to enable people with the skills to think critically, innovate, and solve problems. STEM students developed the education and skills to prepare for this, right?

Long Term Career Success: STEM vs Non-STEM

A study by Harvard education and economics professor David Deming has shown that graduates with STEM degrees can get higher-earning jobs as soon as they enter the job market. However, as they enter their peak earning years, arts graduates can catch up in annual salary.

In a paper by Deming and colleague Kadeem Noray, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors state that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math jobs are vital contributors to national competitiveness and economic growth. Still, there is a perception that STEM workers are in short supply. They show that this shortage is actually explained by changes in technology that introduce new job skills, making older ones obsolete.  The pace of change is so quick that the jobs for future generations may not exist today.

According to their findings, the initially high economic returns on STEM degrees such as engineering and computer science declines by more than fifty percent in the first decade of working life and coincides with an exit of graduates from STEM jobs (more on that later.)

They used detailed job vacancy data to demonstrate that STEM jobs are subject to rapid change over time as technology advances, leading to a flattening of the age-earning profile as specific skills become obsolete.

The results from this study corroborate the findings in other academic literature and highlight how STEM jobs are the leading edge of technology diffusion in the job market. They cite studies that measure the decay rates of citations of academic work in different fields, which have found that there are higher decay rates for physics and chemistry compared to English. This means that STEM skills become obsolete more quickly than skills in the arts.  This makes sense; new discoveries in science and technology come at an increasingly faster pace.

They stress that faster technological progress creates a shortage of STEM skills rather than STEM workers. The message for college students is that a STEM degree doesn’t mean you have arrived. To remain competitive in the labor market, staying abreast of technological developments and constantly upgrading one’s skill set is essential. (As someone who’s worked in Information Technology for quite some time, I can attest that this is very, very true.)

Faster technological progress creates a shortage of STEM skills rather than STEM workers.

Alas, the ever changing landscape of technology.  Some jobs today didn’t exist a few years ago, and may become obsolete in the future as new technology creates the need for new job roles.  Rinse, Repeat.

Life Long Learning

People in STEM careers must be prepared for lifelong learning. While STEM majors earn substantially more when they enter the labor market, they may experience slower earnings growth over the first decade of their working lives. For instance, computer scientists and engineers have the highest starting salaries, but they also experience the flattest wage growth.

Deming and Noray note that the earnings premium for an applied science major compared to a non-STEM major is forty-four percent at age twenty-four but drops to fourteen percent by age thirty-five. This pattern matches the exiting of applied science majors from STEM occupations as their age increases. The number of applied science majors holding STEM jobs drops from sixty-three percent at age twenty-four to forty-eight percent at age thirty-five.

Pure science majors, such as chemistry, biology, and physics, earn a smaller initial wage premium that grows over time. Their share of STEM jobs drops from twenty-nine percent at age twenty-four to twenty-one percent at age thirty-five and then flattens out.

Does this attrition represent a change of career aspirations, or is there something else at work. That begs the question: Where do all these STEM majors go if they’re no longer in the STEM workforce?

According to Deming and Noray, the answer is management. Similarly, non-STEM majors also shift into management over time. Their model predicts that workers with high abilities will shift out of pure STEM jobs over time because there is a greater return for being a fast learner in jobs that require lower rates of skill change.  So, ultimately, STEM graduates can benefit from a higher starting salary and find they can earn more as they advance by moving into management.

Job $atisfaction

It’s not always about the money.  While potential earnings are an important consideration in any career choice, they should not be the only factor when evaluating the relative merits of various occupations. Research into job satisfaction constantly shows that good relationships with colleagues and superiors, learning and career development, and interesting job content are critical factors. 

A study in Ireland showed that eighty-one percent of STEM employees stated they were either satisfied or highly satisfied with their jobs. This was higher than those employed in health, law, the humanities, finance, and education. Similarly, eighty-two percent of them said that they found their work inspiring, and thirty-five percent said it was pioneering. By comparison, only twenty percent of those in the finance sector found their work inspiring.

A survey by science publication Nature revealed that there are many places in which to do science ranging from academia, government, non-profit organizations, and industry. Sixty-eight percent of survey respondents said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their careers. The author notes that for most, science will always be interesting, and that alone can be enough to keep a person going.

The changes in technology that require professionals to keep their skillset up to date isn’t a dreary treadmill of advancing just to stay in the same place.  This need to continue learning is at times the very thing that keeps the job interesting and exciting.

STEM Is A Constantly Changing Discipline

In a different study published in 2020, Deming and Noray found that STEM majors with higher scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (widely used as a proxy for academic aptitude) leave STEM careers more often at younger ages.

The fact that people use their STEM education to transition into other occupations is not necessarily a bad thing from their perspective. Management positions can be advantageous financially and offer a broader spectrum of work. The critical thinking skills engendered by a STEM education and a positive approach to problem-solving are versatile and well-suited to management positions.  The key thing here is that the skills developed in their education and early in the career provided the path for these workers to advance their careers.

In any career, the ability to adapt to the working environment is critical for job security and career progression. The long-term payoff for career-oriented STEM majors is still high, but it is not as high as short-term comparisons at entry level suggest.

 So, here’s the dilemma for STEM professionals as they advance in their career: Their employers are faced with a choice of hiring younger STEM graduates with fresh up-to-date knowledge and skills at a lower salary, or keeping on a more expensive middle-aged employee whose skills may not be so up to date.

Age factors influence the competition between STEM graduates, and the young have certain advantages over their older colleagues.  This can also be a contributing factor to workers moving into management or job openings in other areas later in their careers.

In a 2019 New York Times article entitled “In The Salary Race, Engineers Sprint But English Majors endure” Deming points out that by the age of forty, STEM graduates earn an average salary of $124,458 while social science and history majors at the same age earned an average of $131,154.  These findings suggest that pursuing a STEM career entirely for the sake of money may not provide the expected return on investment over the course of a career. 

Another implication of the findings is that an exclusive focus on STEM subjects at the expense of other subjects that promote the communications and people skills necessary for management positions may be unwise. This also justifies the growing advocacy of STEAM as opposed to STEM. STEAM includes STEM plus arts subjects.

Related Posts: Read more on the difference between STEM & STEAM and find out what makes the Arts important.

So, what’s the answer?  Should students invest in STEM programs and pursue a career?

Wrap Up – Is STEM education worth it?

STEM education is worth it for many people, but it is necessary to recognize that a STEM degree is not a guarantee of permanent job security and riches in a rapidly changing technological environment.

STEM education should not be aimed purely at higher vocational training but should instead equip students to adapt and learn as new developments in their chosen fields occur – and those changes will occur.  A blended STEM education aims to prepare students to find creative solutions to problems and innovate.

Related Post: Is it hard to get a STEM degree?

Ideally, STEM education should be balanced with other subjects that promote communication and social skills to ensure the versatility of STEM graduates in a wide variety of occupations and career paths.

A college degree in STE(A)M fields provides distinct advantages, especially during early career stages.  While a boost in early income is a huge bonus, salary levels of other job sectors may eventually catch up over the course of a career (still, that’s quite a few years of increased earning, and that adds up.)  

Like any “what do you want to do with your life” discussion, factors such as job satisfaction and overall happiness can’t be ignored.  Studies show that workers in STEM related fields maintain a high degree of job satisfaction.

As much as we’re advocates of STEM & STEAM education and curriculum, it’s not for everybody.  First and foremost, students should pursue a path that prepares them for a career that they find engaging, and more importantly, for a life they find engaging. 

For people that enjoy learning, challenges, innovation, and discovery, STEM (and STEAM) education can be a rewarding path.  If you’ve read down to the final words of this article – that’s you.  We’re with you.  Go do something great.

For further reading, check out our parent’s guide to STEM.


Howie Miller is as dedicated to fatherhood as he is to life long learning. Musician, Photographer, Educator, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Blogger, and founder of STEMtropolis, where you can share his adventures in STEM and STEAM with his family.

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