Efforts to encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees may be starting to sink into students' minds, according to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse.
The organization's research center found that in the last five years, bachelor's degree completions for science and engineering disciplines grew nearly twice as fast as others. Between 2009 and 2013, science and engineering degrees grew by 19 percent, compared to a 9 percent growth among other disciplines. The NSC's research center analyzed the growth of these degrees in two reports released Monday, one by gender and another by age.
"In some cases it might be institutional initiatives, in some cases it might be different kinds of policy levers, but I think the growth has been such that it's not just a coincidence," says lead researcher Jason DeWitt. "I think students have been responding to the call for more STEM students."
The science and engineering disciplines included in the NSC's reports include Earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and computer science, engineering, and biological and agricultural sciences. The NSC also included social sciences and psychology because those two disciplines fall under the National Science Foundation's classification of science.
Research has suggested that by the year 2020, the majority of all new job openings will require some type of postsecondary education, and that STEM occupations will increase by about 25 percent. But others have expressed concern that there are not enough students pursuing such degrees and that these positions could go unfilled.
In fact, National Science Foundation data that has tracked year-to-year growth in science and engineering degree completions since 1966 show the recent surge in these types of degrees is exceptional.
The NSC found science and engineering bachelor's degrees grew by 19 percent from 2009 to 2013. By comparison, the NSF data show those degrees grew by just 7.5 percent from 2005 to 2009.
Additionally, the growth from year-to-year in that five-year period was larger than past individual year growth, the data show. From 2009 to 2013, the average annual growth was 4.5 percent, compared with an average annual growth of 2.4 percent during the previous 30 years.
And although there have been other periods of growth, DeWitt says in comparison to the historical growth of these degrees, the last five years represented "a period of accelerated growth."
Additionally, educators and employers have identified gender, race and ethnicity gaps in those pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Far fewer women pursue such degrees and careers than men, and fewer minority students do so compared with white students.
The gender gap in certain STEM fields is apparent in one of the NSC reports: in 2013, women earned 19 percent of the engineering degrees, 26 percent of the mathematics and computer science degrees, 38 percent of the physical science degrees and 38 percent of Earth, atmospheric and ocean science degrees. However, women earned 62 percent of the social science and psychology degrees in 2013, although those disciplines wouldn't fall under the traditional STEM definition.
But the NSC reports identify another potential gap: age.
Although science and engineering degree completions for students over the age of 26 also experienced a significant growth in this time (up 25 percent) that group of students still makes up a much smaller portion of all science and engineering degrees, according to the NSC reports.
In 2013, students 26 and older earned 18 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in science and engineering disciplines. By comparison, older students earned 30 percent of the bachelor's degrees in non-science and engineering disciplines.