Minorities, who will make up the majority of the country’s population by 2050, continue to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
USC Rossier School of Education assistant professor Tatiana Melguizo believes this could change if people knew how much more money could be earned in these fields.
Not surprisingly, research shows that when selecting a college major, people are influenced by how much money can be made.
Melguizo, along with Gregory Wolniak of the University of Chicago, examined the economic benefits among low-income and high-achieving minority students who major in a STEM field in college and how these students fare once in the labor market.
The study, which was published in Research in Higher Education, was conducted as part of a program to promote the use of data from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Its findings provide policymakers and college administrators with evidence suggesting the importance of a major field of study and “occupational congruence,” the ability to find a job in a person’s field of study.
In other words, the education pays off when STEM college graduates get jobs in STEM fields.
Based on a nine-year study of more than 1,000 scholarship applicants, Melguizo found the low-income and high-achieving minority students made more money in their careers when they majored in STEM fields and even more money when they both majored and pursued jobs in STEM fields.
Students who majored in STEM, biological sciences and professional fields earned between 26 percent to nearly 40 percent more than students who majored in humanities and education fields. But Melguizo also found that some students with degrees in STEM majors end up in careers in other fields, thereby affecting their earning potential.
A STEM major with a job in another field still has an earnings premium of about 25 percent, according to Melguizo’s research, but a STEM major with a job in a STEM field has a premium in excess of 50 percent. Graduates who got jobs in the fields they studied in college made more than those who did not in all cases, except for the social sciences.
“It would be good if universities and potential employers became aware that they have to educate students that if they get a job in a STEM-related occupation, they have an even higher earning premium,” Melguizo said. “Otherwise, the students are not reaping the economic benefit of all of the pain and hard work they went through as undergrads.”
Melguizo also discovered some discrepancies involving minority groups that may be worthy of additional research.
In terms of earnings, African American STEM majors made less money than any other minority group in the same field, but African Americans who majored in education made more than other minority groups in the same field.
In the study, African Americans were the least likely group to get a job in the field they studied, which could be due to a number of factors – from individual preferences to occupational discrimination, Melguizo noted.
The study found that Latinos earned more than their African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander counterparts, which Melguizo said might be explained by Latinos with majors in lower-paying humanities and social sciences finding employment in higher-paying professional and technical fields.
According to Melguizo, the findings related to how Latinos are being more successful in gaining employment in high-paying professional fields is intriguing, and more qualitative studies are needed to understand the way these students are approaching and being approached by potential employers.
Melguizo said universities may need to use tailored strategies to reach out to and provide career and occupational development to students of different racial/ethnic groups.
A more holistic approach to increasing the number of minorities entering STEM careers would strengthen the STEM pipeline and help America meet the growing demand for an educated workforce with the skills needed for its future success, the researcher explained.
“The STEM pipeline will only be truly strengthened when students pursue occupations and advance to positions of power that will enable them to succeed economically, contribute to society and generate the critical mass necessary to encourage other low-income and minority groups to pursue this track,” Melguizo said.