Divided We Learn

Too little aid for low-income STEM majors?

With an extra financial-aid boost, low-income students more likely to study science, technology, engineering or math, study finds

A graduate student working in science lab.

A graduate student working in science lab.

When low-income students get a need-based grant, in addition to other financial aid, they are more likely to study science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) than their peers who don’t receive this boost in aid, according to a recent study from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

The study’s authors followed students who in 2008-2009 received the Wisconsin Scholars Grant, which is reserved for Pell grant-eligible students from Wisconsin who graduated from a state high school (or received an equivalency diploma) and attended a state college or university, among other criteria. Pell grants cover only 30 percent of the total price of attendance at the average public four-year institution, the authors said.

Wisconsin Scholars Grant recipients were 42 percent more likely to declare a STEM major than their peers, the study found. A STEM degree, in fields such as computer science or petroleum engineering, can lead to a high-paying career for just about anyone. But for low-income students, this kind of degree can be life-changing.

During the 2015-2016 school year, most of the family-dependent Pell students came from households making less than $40,000 a year, according to the College Board. And 90 percent of independent Pell students, who weren’t also caring for a dependent, made less than $20,000 during that school year.

The average starting salary for math and science graduates was $59,368 for the class of 2017, according to a 2017 report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The average for computer science graduates was $65,540 and for engineering grads it was $66,097. Humanities graduates averaged $48,733.

Related: To attract more blacks and Hispanics to STEM, universities must address racial issues on campus

STEM majors may be less likely to face unemployment, which can be devastating for a low-income household.

“Employment in STEM occupations grew much faster than employment in non-STEM occupations over the last decade (24.4 percent versus 4.0 percent, respectively), and STEM occupations are projected to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024, compared to 6.4 percent growth for non-STEM occupations,” according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Labor report.

Plus, STEM graduates don’t actually have to work in a STEM field to reap the salary benefits.

The department report also said: “STEM degree holders enjoy higher earnings, regardless of whether they work in STEM or non-STEM occupations. A STEM degree holder can expect an earnings premium of 12 percent over non-STEM degree holders, holding all other factors constant.”

For many, college isn’t just about getting an education. It’s also about getting a high-paying job, one you could only get with the right degree, and using that job to get into the middle or upper-middle class.

Of course, even when additional aid is available to lower the cost of college, some students will not study STEM. The subjects and the job opportunities may just not appeal to them, or they may not be academically strong enough in math and science to pass STEM courses.

But for those who want to get into engineering or mathematics but are also stressed about rapidly-rising college costs, more need-based grant aid may be their best bet. It is one way, the study says, to increase “the share of undergraduates pursuing STEM fields and promoting the socioeconomic mobility of students from low-income families.”

This story about the STEM majors was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where… See Archive

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