Promoting Social Mobility via STEM Education


Job openings outnumber job seekers by a record gap, the Wall Street Journal reports today. There were a seasonally adjusted 7.45 million unfilled jobs at the end of April compared to 6.2 million Americans looking for work. With workers so much in demand, there exists a never-seen-before-in-our-lifetimes opportunity to increase social mobility.

Here in Virginia, contend John Broderick, president of Old Dominion University, and co-author Ellen J. Neufeldt, the commonwealth can kill two birds with one stone: meeting the demand for tens of thousands of unfilled technology jobs and helping lower-income Virginians climb out of poverty and near-poverty by equipping the disadvantaged with the skills required for those jobs. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed published today they write:

It is our obligation, particularly at public universities,” “to enhance social mobility for the students we serve. By removing barriers to higher education and preparing students for STEM-H jobs, institutions will not only increase economic opportunity and social mobility, but also ensure that the jobs of the future are filled by a well-educated, career-ready and diverse workforce.

From a high-altitude perspective, Broderick and Neufeldt make an excellent point and their ideas are well worth exploring. However, their analysis fails to account for the bottleneck in the school-to-college pipeline for lower-income students, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, and a naive application of their ideas could have unintended negative consequences.

ODU’s Center for Social Mobility and the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) recently held a symposium to address the social mobility issue. Experts warned that demographic trends — the growing percentage of the population in African-American and Hispanic households — pose a special challenge.

“As population growth among people of color continues to outpace that of white Americans and baby boomers exit the workforce, policy leaders must work to increase under-represented students with college degrees and close racial gaps,” write Broderick and Neufeldt. The trends “exacerbate the racial income gap, perpetuate the cycle of poverty, and leave well-paying jobs unfilled. Continuing on this path is untenable.”

Policy leaders must work to “increase under-represented students with college degrees and close racial gaps,” they write. And how might that be done? By increasing “financial resources” to support academic and support programs such as targeted success coaching, Brother2Brother-like tutoring, student work and internships, and pairing students with first-generation faculty mentors. Another component in the social mobility strategy “requires an emphasis on STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and health care) disciplines to produce graduates ready to fill jobs in the knowledge economy.”

These programs may be a good idea. But they can accomplish only so much. No amount of tutoring and mentoring will suffice to overcome a severely deficient K-12 education.

The school-to-college pipeline poses an intractable problem that colleges and universities cannot solve. The chart below, based on statewide 2017-18 Standards of Learning test data, shows that disadvantaged students — in particular African-American and Hispanic disadvantaged students — pass their 8th grade mathematics and science tests at distressingly low rates.

Key: Blue = math test scores, yellow = science test scores. Source: Virginia Department of Education

It will be difficult to increase the number of low-income African-American and Hispanic students in college- and university-level STEM programs when only 50% to 60% pass their 8th grade math and science requirements. Luring poorly prepared students into college, where they borrow immense sums to pay for their education and from which many drop out, does no favors to the drop-outs. Indeed, such a policy ruins lives and skewers any chance these unfortunates had at upward mobility.

At some point in our history, Americans will look back with shame upon the practice of telling everyone they need to attend college to have a shot at a better life, enrolling thousands who are academically ill prepared for college-level work, loading them up with debt that many will never repay, all the while building bastions of bloat and privilege for college administrators and tenured faculty.

So, yes, an unparalleled opportunity does exist in the current job climate to create upward social mobility for lower-income Americans. Yes, we as a society should work to eliminate barriers to upward mobility, and, yes, we should seriously consider the kinds of programs Broderick and Neufeldt describe (depending on who pays for them, a question the authors sidestep).

But we should encourage enrollment only of those students who have a realistic chance at succeeding, otherwise we will cripple another generation with debt that can never be repaid. We must acknowledge that it is not within the power of colleges and universities to address the failings of K-12 schools and the cultural pathologies of 21st-century American poverty. Every policy initiative should be judged on its ability to produce positive outcomes, not the good intentions of those who propose it.

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13 responses to “Promoting Social Mobility via STEM Education

  1. One of our big issues for all students – well-educated K-12 and not is the narrative that “college” is a one-time standard 4 yr degree that gets you the American dream and it does not and especially so in the 21st century economy.

    Yes, we have lots of disadvantaged kids grabbing for that gold ring and falling short but we also have a ton of middle class kids doing the 4yr degree, graduating and working in Starbucks or similar because they basically evaded the STEM curricula in both HS and College.

    Just selecting out the disadvantaged in this is skewing the issue. It really is about “higher Ed” in general. Many kids – both disadvantaged and not disadvantaged who are weak in STEM would do well to take a 2 yr run at a Community College or even a for-profit – and bolster math/science/and even language – qualify for some kind of a job and then if/when the time is right – go for the rest of the 4yr degree.

    What’s happened to the disadvantaged is that they have bought the same bill-of-goods that the middle class has – but they are in a weaker position academically and fiscally and the consequences are worse – there often is no family “safety-net” as black families as a group have far less family wealth than white families.

    The question is how do we really want to fix it? I just don’t think pointing at the disadvantaged alone – is the way to do it. The answer should NOT be – “you’re disadvantaged so helping you is a low payback proposition”.

    • “The answer should NOT be – “you’re disadvantaged so helping you is a low payback proposition”.

      Of course, nobody has said this.

      • When the focus is on the disadvantaged and the narrative is about how unprepared they are and how they end up in debt with no degree – without anything that sounds like ” we should do this instead ” – it SOUNDS LIKE it IS about failure and walk away.

        So.. nobody says this overtly – but the message is that they can’t really be helped because they have already failed in K-12.

        So no .. not said openly but very much in the narrative…

  2. I hope everyone pays lots of attention to this article, Jim. It is one of the best, most timely, and accurate article you’ve written.

    For example,
    “These programs may be a good idea. But they can accomplish only so much. No amount of tutoring and mentoring will suffice to overcome a severely deficient K-12 education.”

    This is one reason why it has been estimated that 40% of recent 4 year college graduates are said to work jobs that do not require a four year college degree. Translated, our high schools and colleges have wasted much of their lives.

    Incredible, this problem is even far worse. This is because those figures because includes only those kids who have received four years bachelor degrees while taking up to 6 years to graduate. Those figures do not include the 40% of college students who dropped out of college and/or never graduated from college after taking many of the courses, despite today’s inflated grades that make it difficult to flunk out for lack of learning anything in college.

    Thus, America’s education system today for most kids is horribly dysfunctional, despite being the world’s most expensive by far.

    Why? And why will we not admit these horrible truths?

  3. For 12 years I was on the board of a Washington, DC based charity dedicated to helping inner city youth. One of the things I learned is that there are plenty of smart kids inner city high schools. Plenty of generally motivated kids too. However, there is a lot of defeatism and a lot of misunderstanding of the real world outside of the inner city. Many never really saw the connection between working (pretty) hard in school and success after school.

    I always imagined a program where a year of post-high school training would be provided to any student of XYZ high school who graduated with a B average or better (where XYZ is a high school from an underprivileged area). The year will be spent learning to be an IT professional. The program will pay the student $15 per hour over the course of 2,000 hours of instruction. Overhead is twice the cost of paying the students.

    At the end of every quarter, there is a test. Some students continue and some do not. Let’s say that 25% “drop out” at the end of every quarter.

    Four students start the program ….

    1. One drops out at the end of Q1 with a program cost of $15,000.
    2. One drops out at the end of Q2 with a program cost of $30,000.
    3. One drops out at the end of Q3 with a program cost of $45,000.
    4. One completes the program at a cost of $60,000.

    Corporations which make donations to the program get first chance to interview the students. Since effectively all of the students are minorities the technology corporations are going to be interested in these interviews. Even the student that only stayed 3 months is a much better candidate than a student that never entered the program. The students who stay the full year will get excellent job offers with excellent future prospects.

    This program is broadly advertised in the middle and elementary schools associated with the high school. Kids (and their parents and guardians) understand that students who get a B average will be eligible.

    Here’s the kicker … IT corporations which don’t participate in these efforts have their H1B visa allocations slashed. If they’re not willing to help prepare Americans for the IT future then they not going to get permission to import foreigners into America for those same positions.

    • Your proposal has a lot of merit.

      An overarching problem in finding success for our educational institutions, particularly for our public institutions, our inability to force them to admit to, and take effective remedies to overcome, their chronic failures. This includes giving our institutions, and their leaders, the cover to push this idea of recognizing and dealing with failure, down upon their students.

      Human beings find real success and empowerment in the world, only by confronting and overcoming their own failures. This must become a personal habit that in turn requires personal confidence. Confidence is born over time only by those with the experience of meeting challenges, and learning to deal with and overcome those challenges, that success always demands. Here is our great weakness in successfully educating our kids today.

  4. Well.. whether one is disadvantaged or not – the conventional wisdom has been if you can get that 4-year degree – you have “made it” to the American Dream and that’s just no longer true for a LOT of 21st century work.

    Our disadvantaged have bought this same idea… they just are even less prepared and more vulnerable to the debt.

    This is why we see employers wanting H1B workers from overseas – because THOSE workers ARE educated to the requirements of the 21st century even if they did not get that American 4-yr college degree….

  5. Require any school (K-12) receiving state money to pay the costs for remedial classes in basic subjects taken by their graduates in post-high school institutions. If John, Jane or Jose graduate from high school and need remedial courses in basic subjects, the high school pays the full cost of the remedial courses. It comes out of their current budgets. The financial pain would force K-12 educators to work a helluva lot harder at ensuring every kid learns the basics.

  6. Students and parents avoid the STEM in K-12 so they can have a “good” QCA for College and the disadvantaged follow suit – it’s not just the schools and ultimately the cost of remedial work is going to be borne by taxpayers one way or the other. The schools OFFER the STEM – but the STEM is not mandatory and if it was – the academic performance metrics would fall..

    The SOLs are NOT STEM – they are BASIC read/write/math – which in the 21st century is not enough and the “competition” is foreign workers who DO have STEM and come here on H1B visas.

    We have more jobs than qualified workers. we have an overage of workers with minimal skills for more rudimentary work.

    It’s not just the schools – they offer what people want whether it is “enough” or not.. both K-12 and Higher Ed. It’s NOT like they don’t offer the tougher STEM work – it’s that students/parents avoid them like the plague!

  7. “The SOLs are NOT STEM – they are BASIC read/write/math – which in the 21st century is not enough and the “competition” is foreign workers who DO have STEM and come here on H1B visas.”

    Sometimes, in many cases, SOls are enough, but almost always BASIC read/write/math along with verbal and social /emotional skills, are the essential beginnings for educating most students, including future STEM students. This is where many high schools fail to properly educate many students, and that lack of basic HS education often unravels the future of many students’ ability to achieve.

  8. I feel like our American society is back where we were pre-Sputnik with much less interest in STEM. I could elaborate on this, but suffice it to say STEM is not popular with liberals and long time Americans. Thankfully foreign born students, and maybe first gen after that, are not yet indoctrinated into our STEM-aversion. Even when I was in grad school years ago, the sign on the vending machine in the ChE Building said “no foreign coins please”. If you go to Thomas Jefferson School for their science fair, or visit the cloud area of Loudoun County, you will quickly see you are not in Kansas anymore, it is all mostly new Americans.

    • Fascinating comment and true. Thomas Jefferson High School, in Alexandria Virginia, was ranked this year as the Best (no. 1) high school in America based on its admissions to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Hence Amazon’s arrival. Meanwhile nearly Episcopal High School was way down the list, hardly to be found. It’s a new and different world we live in. Last year’s stereotypes and prejudices are suddenly old and tired, going out the window.

      • we should still encourage STEM I am convinced there are gifted American students, but there are limts to how many, and competition. Perhaps we need to do a better job of identifying aptitude where that is possible, and then focus in that.

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