That claim that a college education is currently oversold has become almost a truism-with rising tuition and falling job opportunities, a graduate is likely to be stuck with a pricey diploma and no guarantee of a good salary to pay back those four years of loans. But that's mostly true for B.A.'s in philosophy or women's studies, right? Maybe even sports medicine. Ph.D.'s in organic chemistry or microbiology stand a much better chance of catching the success express.
Or maybe not.
Ever since the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957, American kids have been encouraged to go into the STEM fields-science, technology, engineering, and medicine-or else the world will eventually eat our lunch. Every few years bring a renewed call, and the sense of urgency knows no particular party affiliation or political philosophy. Democrats and Republicans agree on the shortage of homegrown scientists, to the extent that immigration standards are relaxed (see the Staple Act and the BRAIN Act) for foreign STEM students and Ph.D.'s. But news is leaking out that what we've always known to be so isn't so. There is no shortage of outstanding American graduates in the STEM fields. The shortage is not personnel, but jobs.
Bright young Ph.D.'s are graduating with fewer job prospects because 1) high-tech immigrant labor supplies the need at lower cost, 2) the pharmaceutical industry has shrunk dramatically, laying off chemistry and biology majors by the hundreds, and 3) the number of new Ph.D.'s in medical and life sciences nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007, leading to the inevitable glut-not a brain drain but a desk desert. Too many post-doctorates find themselves doing drudgework in university laboratories starting at $39,000, as their labor builds the reputation of the resident scientist.
The good news is that American students are not quite as lazy or clueless as we've been led to believe. The bad news is that swelling the ranks of highly educated chemists and biologists doesn't magically produce employment when they graduate. The United States did not achieve its place in the world because of the number of its citizens who graduated from college, but because the opportunity it allowed for creative people to create more opportunities. Creativity is hard to teach but easy to throttle. Looking to education alone to generate jobs is like expecting the milk truck to conjure the cow.