The STEM Bubble within the Bubble

by Jay Schalin

Once upon a time, nobody in the mainstream media talked about the higher education bubble or the overselling of higher education. For a long time, they were ideas batted around in the think-tank world, but in academia, government, and the media there was no mention of the possibility that we were focusing too much money and energy on higher education. Today, these topics are regularly discussed in establishment publications, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

A few days ago, these graphs appeared on The Atlantic, showing the huge glut of Ph.D.s in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects. Despite this growing excess, universities, the business community, and both state and federal governments continue to promote the existence of some great demand for more scientists and engineers. This promotion takes the form of increased subsidies, encouragement of young people to pursue scientific studies, and pushing for more immigration of foreign students and H-1B visas for scientists.

Because of the establishment’s attempt to solve a non-problem, labor-supply gluts have been building in some STEM fields since the 1970s. I wrote about the problem a year ago, but I was hardly the first; some people such as demographer Michael Teitelbaum, computer scientist Norman Matloff, and journalist Beryl Lieff Benderly have been exposing the problem for many years, even decades. But because they don’t fit into the mainstream narrative, these gluts have been denied and ignored and made much worse. It’s gotten so bad the gluts can’t be easily hidden anymore, hence the appearance of the charts in The Atlantic. And the situation is dire: Fewer than half of new science and engineering Ph.D.s have jobs at graduation. Giving unemployed Ph.D.s post-doctoral appointments is hiding some of the employment problem, but post-doc positions are temporary and relatively low-paid, not the sort of jobs one can build a future on.

Maybe someday, the biggest media outlets will discuss the STEM glut. They’re only decades behind.