Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up from an article I wrote for Inside Higher Ed, “The Humanities Must Unite or Die.“
I recently met a young woman struggling over the decision of whether to go to college. She was enrolled in an excellent program for bright high-schoolers from low-income families, which was intended to give them a leg-up into STEM majors (and then, STEM careers). Any university would be lucky to have her—she is smart, motivated and articulate. She would be a first-generation college attendee. But she was torn.
The prospect of a five-figure loan to finance her education—while her parents struggle to make ends meet—felt risky, even irresponsible. She wondered whether, instead, to take a job right out of high school, particularly since she was unsure whether she even liked the STEM subjects promoted by the program.
STEM has been promoted by programs like this one—not to mention by government programs and presidential initiatives—as the sure path to a lucrative career, despite numerous studies indicating that it is little better than the arts and humanities at providing jobs after graduation. As a result, as college attendance rates have dropped for low-income students, those low-income students who remain have chosen to major in STEM fields far more than the arts and humanities.
The Washington Post recently reported a disturbing trend: between 2008 and 2013, “college enrollment among the poorest high school graduates—defined as those from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes—dropped 10 percentage points… the largest sustained drop in four decades.” This is particularly alarming because, “more than half of the nation’s K–12 public school students are considered to be from low-income families.” Ten percent of this population represents a very large number of people, including, possibly, the bright, conflicted young woman I met.