Disparities, Shortages Still Exist in STEM Pipeline, Studies Show

The number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents earning graduate degrees in STEM fields fell 5 percent between 2008 and 2014, while the number of international graduate students earning STEM degrees increased by 35 percent during that same time, according to a study by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Although data from the third annual U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index show increases in the number of STEM graduates and in STEM hiring — with 30,835 additional graduates and 230,246 additional jobs in 2014-2015 — most of these individuals are international students. Because only 65,000 of these foreigners are granted an H-1B work visa each year, and another 50,000 students and graduates receive STEM-specific visas for on-the-job training, the majority of these graduates are forced to return to their home countries.

“It’s a big concern: We bring a lot of students here, we train them, and then they leave,” said Vince Bertram, president and CEO of Project Lead the Way, which provides STEM coursework and programs for schools.

In addition to the rise in graduate STEM degrees, the survey also notes a 5 percent increase in all STEM degrees granted. However, gaps exist in regard to women and minorities.

The STEM Index reveals that only 3 percent of associate degrees, 8 percent of bachelor’s degrees, and 6 percent of graduate degrees granted to women were in STEM disciplines; for men, these figures are 8 percent, 13 percent, and 11 percent, respectively.

The number of STEM degrees awarded to Hispanics spiked at all levels, with a 9 percent increase in associate degrees, a 13 percent increase in bachelor’s degrees, and an 8 percent increase in graduate degrees. In addition, the survey shows that while the number of white students earning STEM degrees increased in the last five years, the number of African American students graduating with STEM degrees dropped.

Despite gains by some groups, many believe there needs to be a larger focus on building pipeline programs. And some are concerned that the U.S. will have to rely heavily on international students to fill much-needed STEM positions, especially in the growing field of computer science.

“We have to continue to grow our own talent, and it doesn’t happen at the graduate level,” Bertram said. “It’s going to occur [in] elementary and middle school, not trying to convince students once they’re in high school that these opportunities are available to them.”