52% of Americans: Students don’t pursue STEM degrees because the coursework is too difficult

January  29, 2018

When Americans are asked why more students don’t pursue a degree in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM))—subjects that would garner them high-paying jobs in fields such as green energy—they are most likely to point to the complexity of such courses, based on findings of a Pew Research Center poll released on January 9.

About half of adults (52%) say the main reason young people don’t pursue STEM degrees is they think these subjects are too difficult to master. Some 12% say the reason is that the subject matter is “too boring.”

Policymakers and educators have long puzzled over why more students do not pursue STEM majors in college, even though those who have an undergraduate degree in a STEM field of study earn more than those with other college majors—regardless of whether they work in a STEM job or a different occupation. Yet only 33% of workers ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree have an undergraduate degree in a STEM field, according to Pew.About half of adults (52%) say the main reason young people don’t pursue STEM degrees is they think these subjects are too difficult to master. Some 12% say the reason is that the subject matter is “too boring.”

Only 13% of the U.S. workforce was employed in STEM occupations as of 2016, while the vast majority (87%) was employed in other occupations. Even so, 40% of non-STEM workers  say they were at least somewhat interested in pursuing a STEM job or career at some point in their lives.

The survey asked those non-STEM workers why they did not end up pursuing this interest. The most commonly cited reason for not pursuing a STEM career was cost and time barriers (27%), such as high expenses required for education or a lack of access to resources and opportunities. One-in-five (20%) say the reason they did not pursue a STEM career is that they found another interest, while 14% say they found STEM classes were too hard or they lost interest.

There are differences between those with and without a college degree in reasons cited for not pursuing a career in STEM. Those with some college or less education are about three times more likely than college graduates to cite cost or time barriers (36% vs. 11%), while college graduates are more inclined to say they found another interest (26% vs. 17%) or found STEM classes too difficult or lost interest in the subject (21% vs. 11%).

Research contact: info@pewresearch.org

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