The Surprising Downsides of Popular STEM Majors

“Sometimes, I wish people were a little more honest if you’re going into STEM,” says Dr. Phil Gardner, the Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

Dr. Gardner is the foremost expert on workforce readiness, the college labor market, and the transition from college to the workplace. Previewing an upcoming 2021 Recruiting Trends Report, Dr. Gardner shares insights for college applicants and parents thinking about college ROI.

  • The best ROI for the lucky students uninterested in a 4-year college degree
  • The unknown trap of pursuing the popular biology degree
  • Why engineering is the wrong major for students who like to build things and work with their hands

We shouldn’t be pushing everybody to go to 4-year colleges.

If they’re not sure about college, get a certificate, a two-year applied degree that leads them to the workforce. It’s the nice thing about American universities, unlike the rest of the world like Europe and New Zealand and U.K., where they don’t have a lot of room for adult learners. The U.S. has a lot of options. I can go and get an apprenticeship and start as an electrician. I get comfortable, and now I want to be a P.M. [project manager] in construction and I want to get a B.A. in Construction Management. We have pathways in and out of college.

If you’re here, you’re probably convinced that a 4-year college degree is essential. You may not know exactly why, except everyone does it, and it’s an expectation, like getting married, having kids, or owning a car.

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But Dr. Gardner’s research has found that going to 4-year colleges only to socialize and not put in the effort leads to a very low ROI, if any.

The good news is that students who are not interested or prepared for college have many paths toward the “good life.” Dr. Gardner suggests looking into affordable 2-year applied degrees like Associate’s Degrees that lead quickly into good paying jobs like electricians.

In the U.S., American students should take advantage of the flexible education system that welcomes adult learners at the undergrad level. If your student figures out at 26, 36, 46, or even 85 years old that it’s finally time to get a Bachelor’s degrees after a career they enjoy, there will be opportunities abound.

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However, getting solely a high school degree will not be enough.

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