By Holmstrom, Engin; Gaddy, Catherine; Van Horne, Virginia
Issues in Science and Technology , Vol. 13, No. 3
Some members of the science and engineering (S&E) community have been worried that the attraction of higher salaries in other professions and the much-discussed difficulties that some recent Ph.D.s have encountered in finding jobs is luring some of the best and brightest students away from science. As testimony presented on behalf of the American Association of Universities to a congressional subcommittee warned in 1995, "We are especially concerned that some of the most talented American students have chosen to attend professional schools . . . rather than obtaining a Ph.D." Though widely repeated, little more than anecdote supports this view.
The last careful analysis of student choice of field of study was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences in 1987, using data through 1985. Recognizing that the strength of the U.S. scientific and technical enterprise depends in part on the career choices of the best students, the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST), with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, undertook the task of answering the question: Are S&E attracting a larger or smaller share of these promising students than in the past?
To answer this and related questions, CPST analyzed data for students and graduates from high school through college and graduate/professional school and out into the labor force. We found that although the flow of top students [as measured by grade point average or Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores] into S&E appears to be strong, the overall percentage of freshmen majoring in S&E is down. We found that a remarkable amount of movement into and out of fields occurs throughout schooling and work. Large numbers of S&E students, including many top students, abandon their field; but in most cases they move to another S&E discipline. The dynamics of student choice made it clear to us that periodic snapshots of student choices provide a misleading picture of what is happening in education. We recommend that key indicators, some cross-sectional and some longitudinal, be monitored on a more systematic basis to assess changes in the educational and career paths of top students.
National Merit Scholars
One early indicator of whether the very best students are pursuing S&E is the choice of college major by the roughly 7,000 high-school seniors who win National Merit Scholarships each year. These students are the top 0.5 percent of graduating seniors in academic achievement, and over the years they have consistently shown a disproportionately high interest in S&E. In 1994, for example, 45 percent of Merit scholars planned to study science or engineering, compared with only 19 percent of all college-bound seniors. When one adds in the approximately 10 percent of Merit scholars who plan to major in health/ medical sciences, it is clear that science, engineering, and health are attracting the majority of superior students.
Sources: National Science Board, 1993; National Merit Scholarship Corporation, 1996.
Top students' choices
Another indicator of the paths of good students is the change in top and total freshmen who chose science or engineering as a major in their freshman year. Between 1985 and 1995, the number of freshmen entering the nation's colleges and universities declined by about 11 percent, but the number of top students [those with a high-school grade point average (GPA) of A- or better] increased by 17 percent. This is possible because the percentage of students with an A- or better GPA grew from 22 to 29 percent. During this period, the biological sciences saw dramatic increases in top and total students. The total number of top students majoring in the physical sciences increased, whereas those choosing engineering and math decreased. The apparent decline in interest in engineering is somewhat deceiving, because the mid-1980s was a period of unusually high interest in engineering. …