What Keeps Students From Pursuing a STEM Degree

The things that keep students from pursuing a STEM degree is quite understandable, but it takes all hands on deck in order to solve. Luckily, after a ton of research, I have been able to explore this topic and share my findings with you in-depth.

What keeps students from pursuing a STEM degree? Young people don’t pursue STEM degrees because they think it’s too hard. But, this is less the student’s fault and more the fault of their influencing factors and low opportunities.

Currently, the achievement and interest of U.S. students in STEM education are not enough for America to retain its authority in STEM careers. The U.S. is heavily dependent on foreign-born STEM workers. Unless the government takes action to encourage a new generation of U.S. students in STEM careers, the U.S. cannot guarantee the creation of a large number of professionals in the STEM field to meet its needs. 

This post is driven by the barriers and misunderstandings about STEM education. We will take a closer peek at the level of U.S. students in STEM careers and the basics of their career choices. I conclude with suggestions on how you can encourage more students to pursue STEM careers.

The Need for STEM

Many innovations from STEM professions are making it better to live in this world. As the globe progresses, the power, leadership, and the economy of the United States will focus more on the effective use and availability of experts in STEM fields. Subsequently, the performance, authority, and security of a country doesn’t only depend on technology use, but also on the amount of employees within STEM.

What leads the United States’ evolution is the development of technology and STEM-skilled workers. However, despite its history of technological success, the U.S. is lagging behind many developing countries in STEM. As the U.S. spends a lot of effort and money to promote progress in STEM education, there is an increase in the amount of foreign workers and students in these fields.

The U.S. is losing to countries on multiple evaluations in STEM education. Recent advancements aren’t good enough for the country to continue being a world authority in innovation and technology. Many STEM-skilled US students don’t recognize their maximum STEM potential in high school, and many completely ignore their STEM career choices while in college.

Despite the fact that many students stand out in STEM, an overall evaluation of U.S. students’ general performance in mathematics and science tests show that they are persistently below average. The reason is that there isn’t enough motivation in STEM education to drive Americans to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to satisfy the country’s challenging leadership and economic needs.

There appear to be many magnet STEM programs across the nation that produce a lot of talent from the public school system. But, these programs aren’t always offered to students that are underprivileged, and budget restraints cause some to be reduced. For the NSB (National Science Board), the easy way to generate innovators of the future generation is to keep these learners in STEM to improve their STEM experiences in high-school rather than enrolling new students. Occasionally, their talent is missed, but they must be a group targeted for the country’s approach for growing a STEM workforce. Currently, this is looked at as the single way to develop the leadership and economy of the U.S.: by readying a significant number of Americans to lead  in the nation’s technology and science industries.

Promote STEM Education to Underrepresented Groups

Significant gaps in STEM achievements exist between different groups of ethnicity, and many parents and students find STEM subjects to be boring or too challenging. Research has indicated that people are changing fields to other disciplines; this is true, especially for women and minorities. While the number of black and Hispanic college students are growing, their engagement rates are found to be lower than white and Asian Americans.

As the U.S. moves through the 21st century, we must rely less on foreign STEM workers and take action to prepare and inspire American-born students

The Problem

Within the past 20 years, the U.S. STEM workforce has increased more than quadruple the total rate of employment. Simultaneously, the number of U.S. citizens capable to fill up STEM jobs is decreasing. 

Too many jobs in STEM are filled by foreign workers. This is a caution that the U.S. is unlikely to keep its global and local STEM professional leadership unless better action is taken by the government to import or generate enough STEM-skilled workers. 

This issue caused problems for American legislators and educators during the recession of 2011, and it slowed down the U.S. ability to maintain its competitive status. 

Consequently, the question is if the U.S. should stay dependent on other countries for STEM workers or do something to encourage more high school and middle school students towards STEM

The market is growing fast, and it is competitive. It favors those who possess the potential to do their research and development and be able to compete with their worldwide equivalents.

The Involvement Rate of Students in STEM Careers

It is believed that the U.S. does not have enough participation from its students to fulfill its demands. Absence of enough motivation has caused many STEM-skilled students not to be able to notice their full STEM potential.

Between 1970 and 2011, the size of the STEM workforce has risen from 4 percent to 6 percent. This increase is tied to the growth of the Internet and daily-use computers and devices. In the U.S. between 2006 and 2015, the amount of students that received bachelor’s degrees in engineering disciplines went from 74,186 to 106,658 (a 43.8 percent increase). Between 2000 and 2012, the number of Engineering and Science Bachelor’s degrees awarded to increased by 48%.

This increase looks excellent until we compare ourselves to other countries. China, who greatly understands the value of STEM for global leadership, had at least 4.7 million STEM graduates in 2016. In 2017, India had 2.6 million STEM graduates, while the U.S. had 568,000. That makes the U.S. about equal with India in terms of population ratio (1:516 for Indians and 1:573 for Americans). But, we are all way behind China’s 1:293 ratio.

So, why is there such a low ratio in the U.S.? A report released in 2008 noticed an incredibly low interest level for partaking in STEM-related career academics in high school within middle school students. But, these students showed more interest in careers related to business, literature, arts, and entertainment, particularly the girls. As a result, many high schools struggle to get an adequate amount of students to pursue STEM-related academics.

If inadequate STEM enrollment areas and weak curiosity in STEM academics persist, high school academics which connect to STEM majors will be at risk. Professionals say that the United States’ poor skills in encouraging learners to find interest in STEM professions can make the issues of the country’s currently struggling economic position complicated. Additionally, math and science educators handle limited support, including ideal professional advancement and also exciting and relevant or challenging curricula. College systems don’t have the equipment for analyzing improvement and giving rewards for achievement.

The nation doesn’t have absolute standards for mathematics and science that could help educators and students set and achieve goals. Subsequently, way too many American college students determine early within their education that topics related to STEM are boring or as too demanding, resulting in them not being prepared to face the difficulties that their generation, their nation, and the globe will encounter.

Studies have shown that many U.S. teachers aren’t prepared to instruct mathematics and sciences. Future Mathematics instructors are receiving poor schooling and they are not ready to instruct the demanding curriculum necessary for students to contend globally.

If too many students pursue degrees and careers in other than STEM-related areas, the United States will have a difficult time competing in the world economy. On top of that, the U.S. won’t be able to satisfy its future workforce requirements.

Without a solid foundation in STEM, students will not have enough experience for a lot of jobs, including many careers beyond traditional science and engineering.

The Basis of Career Choices

Many U.S. students think that a college degree can be a great advantage when finding a rewarding job. But even more don’t see postsecondary education as the optimal, or even a possible choice. About one-half of students who leave high school don’t have the skills or knowledge needed to get and keep a job, and one-third of these aren’t ready for even entry-level work.

Many students in the U.S. and their parents think that most STEM courses require lots of investment and challenging work. When students commit from the very start of middle or high school and have available opportunities to enroll in high school or vocational courses in math and science, they usually flourish in their STEM path.

Parental encouragement and support are essential factors in influencing children’s vocational outcomes. The mother and father are ranked the first two influences on student choice for career development, the teacher is third, and the counselor is fourth. Even though this is true, most parents think that they don’t or shouldn’t have more influence on the career decisions of their children.

STEM workers earn 70% above the national average, and the major groups of STEM workers have median earnings that are above the national average. But, many STEM graduates think that teaching in middle schools and high schools do not pay enough for more social responsibility. For example, the median salary for new college graduates teaching elementary public schools is $58,000. On the other hand, the median salary for new college graduates in certain STEM-related fields, including engineering and computer science, is currently more than $80,000. Also, teaching requires special licensing and/or an educational degree that students don’t want to attain.

Barriers and Misconceptions That Keep Students From Pursuing STEM

The biggest problem of the STEM education system in the U.S. is that it was developed for another generation when most workers required just basic education. Elementary and high school teachers acquire their info about STEM disciplines from teacher education programs in college. But, the potential of technology has not been reached nationwide teacher education curricula.

Many freshly graduated teachers usually don’t have enough computer experience in the teaching process. Their preparation for technology integration is very low. The technology preparation classes taken by pre-service teachers teach only lower-level technology skills that aren’t enough to provide technology-based teaching in their classrooms.

U.S. STEM education also faces obstacles and misunderstandings that hurt the achievement and motivations of students in all levels.

Many of the obstacles relate to the following:

  • Struggling to keep and encourage kids in STEM careers
  • Time constraints in the classroom
  • Absence of ample preparation for teachers in higher education
  • Challenges in holding onto teachers with a STEM background

These barriers are motivated by some of the following misconceptions over U.S. public school STEM education:

  • All STEM-educated students will be obligated to pick technical fields because they don’t have a foundation in liberal arts
  • STEM education includes a lot of the scientific methods or lab work
  • Technology education teachers and engineers are not able to teach math and science
  • Engineering and technology education is diverse and challenging
  • STEM education only deals with workforce issues
  • Colleges won’t accept STEM high school courses
  • STEM education is just another “fad.”

There are serious disconnections, gaps, and flaws concerning early science and math instruction quality, international test performance of high school students, and the content of pre-service and in-service teacher education programs in U.S. colleges.

Elementary and middle schools are not preparing students to achieve goals in math and science. Most primary school teachers are not confident in their ability to teach science and math. This is especially important in elementary and middle schools. Only 56% of science and math teachers in K-12 have a bachelor’s degree and/or a graduate degree in mathematics or mathematics education or science or science education.

It is estimated that there are 426,000 middle and high school teachers in the country each year, about 25,000 of whom leave the teaching profession. Although there are many reasons for quitting, almost two-thirds of them say that job dissatisfaction is the reason for leaving.

Due to low salaries, but high responsibilities, workloads, and lack of professional support, more than 40% of new science and math teachers leave their jobs in the first five years. Even though most of them return to teaching at different schools, or move on to another STEM career, to overcome the net turnover rate of STEM teachers, the United States still requires more students to apply for STEM.

How to Motivate American Students to Study STEM

To tackle the barriers, myths, and problems of STEM education, we need to target the elements of STEM education to students from all levels, from beginner to advanced. Future STEMs should be directed by pre-service teachers who are teaching in a bachelor’s, graduate, or teaching school. The basic training of STEM teachers and the need for scientific and technological literacy skills is imperative.

STEM-degree students should be given additional financial support from the government or interested institutions. The U.S. Federal Government has implemented a number of these initiatives, and if it succeeds, the U.S. can again hope to receive the largest share of college graduates in the world.

Tax Credit and Scholarship programs have begun to provide higher education in the United States. They are capable of significantly increasing U.S. competitiveness in the future for high-paying and high-tech jobs and can generate a new generation of the STEM workforce.

In addition, STEM careers need to take some steps to stimulate young students’ interest and motivation. This includes the following:

  • Community fundraising or other projects that improve budget and math skills
  • Teach young people in summer science camps or after school programs
  • Participation of students in science in mathematics and science
  • Discovering technological curiosity among students
  • Help them participate in science fairs
  • Basic computing and surfing the Internet
  • Provide them with books and magazines in mathematics and science
  • Motivate them to pursue careers in science and engineering
  • Enable them to learn about computer components

Increase Funding

Limited federal funding has been put into efforts that have the potential to improve STEM education. Inadequate focus has been paid on mass reproduction and distribution of permitted programs. And, the insufficient potential of important agencies was devoted to coordination and strategy. Most importantly, parents, teachers, school counselors, and friends should cultivate their STEM careers in many ways, for example, to better understand the need for science education for all children; Learn more about STEM careers to better advise qualified students in the science courses necessary to take higher education courses that lead STEM careers after high school or higher education; and the importance of choosing high school math and science classes to prepare for a future STEM career, and so on.

The federal government should actively support the State’s efforts to improve and advance standards for STEM subjects by providing subsidies to strengthen higher education that aligns with general standards and evaluate, manage, and promote regular compliance reviews. More importantly, the federal government must actively support the achievement of the goals that provide education and employment to over 100,000 new middle and high school STEM teachers and specialize in STEM and personal education.

Finally, the United States needs to provide higher expenditure for improving teacher training programs that create strong STEM content and pedagogical knowledge. Specific investments should be directed towards scalable programs, as they will have the greatest impact on the number of trained teachers and provide the greatest opportunity to learn about aspects of successful programs.

Focus On Successful Students

Despite its focus on under-performing students, the United States should focus on the most successful students of all economic and ethnic backgrounds.

To meet U.S. requirements for STEM-capable citizens, STEM-qualified employees, and future STEM professionals, the United States must focus on the following goal: The United States must prepare all students, especially underrepresented minorities and girls in these areas, to get motivated and experienced in STEM areas. The partnership and cooperation of private and philanthropic organizations with local and State authorities is essential for this to happen.

Several steps at different levels need to be carefully monitored to encourage more students and non-STEM workforce to join the STEM career path. Collaboration with other educational institutes, the private sector, and the local community is the most powerful and promising way to motivate our students to join the STEM career path.

Students in the industry should be encouraged to continue their internships while preparing to study STEM in college. Students and teachers of all levels must recognize that STEM careers take considerable time and effort to prepare for.

Students who have dedicated themselves since the beginning of high school and have the opportunity to take high school or professional science and mathematics courses may be successful in their STEM classes and their future studies. STEM initiatives need to be reviewed by the Department of Education and federal agencies, like the National Science Foundation and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, to teach K-12 STEM students effectively. The federal government must be actively be involved in each of these partners, giving them specific roles and responsibilities.


Success in STEM demands technical and non-technical skills and inclinations. Curiosity, the ability to think logically and creatively in problem-solving, communication skills, and teamwork are all necessary for success in a STEM career. Mathematical and scientific knowledge is an important foundation for all STEM employees. Students should be inspired by STEM subjects starting in middle school, with extracurricular courses and activities focused on problem-solving skills in high school. After graduation, STEM’s career criteria are more specific to specific professions.

Despite the actions taken by educators, the government, and various organizations, the United States could not be sure that they would produce and verify the number and quality of students, faculty, and STEM professionals needed to meet the country’s current needs. The overall situation shows that the United States is less likely to retain local and global leadership in the fields of science, mathematics, and technology if federal organizers do not take corrective measures to sufficiently develop or import enough experts in these areas. We should question whether the education system and the labor market in the United States motivate and encourage American students to continue their STEM studies and careers in these areas.

The answer to the STEM education problem should be treated in an interdisciplinary manner, and needs to be placed in STEM education centers along with colleges. STEM education should be an educational tool for students who will become future STEM undergraduate and graduate professors. Proper preparation of K-12 and high school STEM education should be an essential prerequisite to meet the demands of a science and technology literate workforce in a technology-driven modern country.

Jason Velarde

Jason Velarde is the guy behind STEMcadia. He has been involved with libraries for over 15 years, starting as a Circulation Desk Clerk, working his way to becoming a Youth Services Librarian. Nowadays, he's spending countless hours in front of the computer as a web developer. Nearly every evening after work, you’ll find him either reverse engineering (breaking) a gadget, building prototype robots, or working on personal coding projects, but when he's not, he's here researching and writing about all things related to STEM on STEMcadia.