Jail Cells, STEM Cells and Mixed Messages

Yellow buses are running all across town. School days are here again. Having attended high school right after the Sputnik space vehicle was successfully fired into orbit, I have at least one thing in common with today’s students. My high school classmates and I were told repeatedly that “the Russians are coming.” This meant that both for ourselves and our nation we had better do well in school. Today, in response to similar national fears, students are being told “the Chinese are coming.”

That’s where the similarities end and the differences begin. The messages they receive are far more confusing and conflicting than what we heard back in the day. And that difference is not due simply to the fact that they live in age of non-stop messaging and information overloads. It is because we adults are confusing them.

Some of us tell them that in terms of our economic clout and technological successes, America’s greatest days are behind us. How discouraging. Can you blame them if in response they say “then why should I bother?” And many do not, as is evidenced by the problem of escalating dropout rates in most urban school districts.

In another ear, we tell them that they are failures if they do not attend and complete college. For poor and disadvantaged youths, it’s the choice of a college degree versus a life of crime and correctional confinement. It’s college or bust.

Next, to confuse them more, they are told that in today’s American economy, a college degree does not always result in a steady, well-paying job. What a bummer.

If the bull-headed student decides to stay in college anyway, what do they hear from us? We tell them that given globe-wide technological advances, the only college degree specializations worth pursuing are those that focus on science and technology (STEM). We cite a recent study that found that STEM majors command the highest salaries after graduation while students who major in some other areas are lucky to find a job at all. Those majors include religion, Latin, film, English literature, dance, communication, music therapy, American studies and art history. It’s STEM or bust.

Suppose that they bite the bullet and choose a STEM major. We then inform them that some of our ablest entrepreneurs in science and technology achieved great success without getting a college degree. These include technology giants Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, who founded Microsoft and Apple. They also include relative newcomer Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard dropout who founded Facebook. Bill Gates has established a charitable foundation aimed at improving pre-college education and encouraging college enrollment, but other high tech leaders have gone on record as saying that a college education may not be necessary to have successful careers in the STEM disciplines.

And this bad news is followed by our telling them that the increasingly high costs of college may mean that getting a degree is not worth the monetary payback a graduate will receive over the course of his or her career. With skyrocketing tuitions resulting in college loan payback periods extending well into the borrowers’ 50s, many are now questioning whether college is a wise financial investment for students in any major, even the highest paying ones.

Add to this conflicting advice the fact that many students constantly see athletes, musicians and entertainers who command much higher salaries than most college graduates, even STEM majors. So can you blame them if they the ask: 1) Should I drop out of high school because the end our economic world as we have known it is near? 2) Should I go to college? 3) Can I get a job without going? 4) If I go to college, is a STEM major my only choice? 5) Can I afford the college expenses, and, if I can, is it worth it? What must we adults do to ease this ball of confusion?

Since we live in an increasingly competitive and technology-based world economy, we must advance STEM-like initiatives as fast as we can. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has already made significant strides in this regard. But at the same time, we must remind our students that since recent occupational analyses have shown that only about 30 percent of all U.S. jobs are STEM-related, there are viable alternatives to STEM occupations even in a high-tech oriented economy.

We must openly acknowledge that one of the unfortunate legacies of the post-Sputnik era has been a high school curriculum that divides high school students into college preparatory tracks alongside an “unspecialized” group of all other students. Indeed, such tracking begins long before high school. With the demise of vocational education over the years, this residual group of presumed non-college attendees has been completely ignored. College-level STEM initiatives, no matter how well designed they are and how successful they are in attracting students, will not address that pre-college educational dilemma.

We must find ways to encourage and train those with STEM-potential skills who choose to forego college. It is very clear that the option of choosing non-college routes to high technology jobs is not limited to the talented few who found major tech companies. Many highly compensated jobs in information technology requiring competencies in computer programming are today capably performed by high school graduates.

We must embrace the fact that profitable careers also await those literate high school graduates who choose to forego college to pursue careers in the skilled trades, the service industry, and a host of other occupations. The burgeoning energy industry in the U.S. has placed the spotlight on the need for such workers.

Finally, we must envision an America in which even students in the currently unrewarded majors can find jobs and make meaningful contributions to American society. Let the music play. Let the arts bloom. All work and no play will make Joe, the STEM guy, a dull boy.