Inflate grades in STEM programs

Samian Quazi

As our nation remains mired in a chronic shortage of qualified science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates, the United States will inevitably fall behind rising powers such as India and China in these fields. Increased funding for middle school science fairs to foster adolescent interest in science won’t address the skills shortage. Neither will focusing on the gender gap. University programs in STEM fields will have to be fundamentally restructured, as their grading policies have only led to rampant attrition among these majors.

On Nov. 4, The New York Times reported that roughly 40 percent of science and engineering majors either switch out to another major or fail to complete any degree, and the figure rises to 60 percent when pre-medical students are factored in. The Times also reports that it is “twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.”

As STEM fields are some of the most rigorous in any university, a high attrition rate is expected. Yet institutional factors, such as depressed grades, needlessly exacerbate the number of students who call it quits. Lower average GPAs in STEM fields can often shut out students’ hopes for future professional or graduate education. And when even many employers detail minimum GPAs on online job postings, students have a strong incentive to jump ship to an easier major to rack up more As.

Unlike graduates of the humanities and social scientists, for instance, STEM majors can rely on market forces in their favor. As the U.S. unemployment rate remains stuck above 9 percent, tens of thousands of critical positions in STEM-related areas remain unfilled because of a skills shortage. Hiring managers are generally loath to fill these positions with applicants that lack even some of the requisite technical skills, leaving the slots open for months or even years.

And the chasm between the masses seeking work and the number of STEM jobs will only continue to widen. According to U.S. News and World Report, “Occupations in these fields are expected to grow by 17 percent by 2018, nearly double the rate of growth in non-STEM occupations.”

It’s unlikely and unrealistic that many STEM employers would voluntarily incur revenue losses for on-the-job training programs to adequately train an English or art history graduate into a technical position. Nor will STEM programs lighten their rigorous workloads on students. Although it’s politically incorrect and unpopular among faculty, STEM programs need to ease up on grading if they want to retain students.

Detractors will stubbornly insist inflating grades will produce legions of mediocre B.S.-degree-carrying graduates unprepared for gainful employment in the jobs they seek. They will ask questions like, “Would you want to drive over a bridge designed and engineered by a C student?”

But the employers themselves must ultimately be responsible for the quality of their staff. In other words, competent business management can assist struggling STEM employees and will naturally promote the brightest among their labor pool for the most critical projects. The market itself in STEM fields will reorganize employees by their skill levels. If a given engineer never uses partial derivatives or arcane equations in his or her career, they presumably would have found research and design courses to be far more worthwhile in their undergraduate careers.

The theoretical basis for most STEM majors is vast — and justifiably so. But young adults are rational decision-makers and understand that their GPA can either be a gateway or a padlock to future employment. When students invest so much time studying for a program they eventually feel is trying to weed them out, many will transfer to an easier major solely to prop up their flagging GPA. It’s not that these students are lazy or unmotivated; they see diminished returns for increased efforts and are demoralized.

By not adjusting their grading policies, STEM programs ultimately hurt themselves as well the future of the American economy. The tragedy is that thousands of otherwise-qualified and talented students will continue to bail out of these programs because the GPA remains the bottom line for many jobs after graduation. It is time for a public discussion on whether STEM programs have been too frugal in doling out good grades for Herculean workloads.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.