For years now, leaders from President Barack Obama on down have been touting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers to young people as a key to their future success. A report on the employment experience of college graduates in five U.S. states, however, uses salary data to challenge major assumptions about the labor market value of some STEM degrees, especially those in the life sciences. Issued 3 September by College Measures, an organization that assembles and analyzes information on colleges, Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates than for Others examined what graduates of 4- and 2-year colleges in Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia earned in the year after they finished their bachelor's or associate's degree or technical certificate.  

The report focuses on undergraduate programs, but its insights are relevant to all concerned with finding employment. "In a market-based economy, earnings data indicate what employers are seeking in first-year graduates," the report sagely notes. "These data are reliable and useful, because they are objective and not subject to the political whims of government officials and leaders of postsecondary institutions."

The report offers four major lessons:

  • "Lesson 1: Some Short-Term, Higher Education Credentials Are Worth as Much as Long-Term Ones
  • "Lesson 2: Where You Study Affects Earnings—But Less Than Usually Thought
  • "Lesson 3: What You Study Matters More Than Where You Study
  • "Lesson 4: The S in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Is Oversold"

When it comes to what employers are willing to pay, the report found, practical, technical skills matter more than the prestige of an institution or degree. Holders of 2-year associate's degrees and nondegree technical certificates earned as much as or more than holders of 4-year degrees, in a number of cases. Graduates of more prestigious institutions have an advantage when competing with people who have less prestigious credentials in the same field, but a person's specific skills have the greatest effect on earnings. 

Among STEM graduates, life scientists command lower pay than those in a number of other scientific or technical fields. "Politicians, policy makers, governors, and many others trumpet the need for STEM education to feed the STEM workforce," the report states. "Despite such rhetoric and clamoring, the labor market is far more discriminating in the kinds of degrees it rewards. Data from College Measures show that employers are paying more—often far more—for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering, and mathematics (TEM). Evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in Biology earn a wage premium—in fact, they often earn less than English majors. Graduates with degrees in Chemistry earn somewhat more than Biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics."

For those already training in the academic world but who want to make a career outside academe, the report's most important message is that the labor market rewards skills useful to employers, not academic credentials per se. As Science Careers has often observed, scientists who learn those skills are the ones most likely to prosper beyond campus walls.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300189