A RECENT graduate from one of our public high schools scored a 29 on the ACT, which placed him in the 95th percentile nationally. With high math and science scores and career interests in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), he was the kind of student Washington state companies complain they can’t find to hire locally.
But after comparing in-state and out-of-state colleges, he chose Rochester Institute of Technology. Factoring in scholarships, it was less expensive for him to attend school in New York and travel home for breaks than to stay in Washington. With RIT’s extensive programs to help students gain work experience in STEM fields, he may end up working elsewhere too. RIT’s placement rate for graduates into employment out of college is approximately 96 percent.
This particular student happens to be my son. But as superintendent of the Edmonds School District, I have heard from other parents about how their children, who were interested in a STEM career, found better schooling access and options out of state.
We often hear about the urgent need for more STEM graduates to fill high-skill jobs in Washington. With it comes a direct or implied message that Washington’s K-12 public schools are not providing a sufficient flow of STEM students.
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Our STEM challenge is not so much about the flow of students. It’s about the limited higher-education capacity for technical baccalaureate degrees, a lack of financial incentives for STEM-interested students and inefficient business participation in STEM fields.
Let’s look at this from a high-school student’s perspective: If I wanted to go to college in Washington for a degree in science, technology, engineering or math, I quite likely wouldn’t be admitted because there are limited enrollment seats in the areas of my interest.
If I were admitted in Washington, I may have to pay more for my degree than I would pay in other states after considering the financial aid offered. And if I were accepted into a STEM program in Washington and decided to pay what it costs, the program wouldn’t have as well-developed work experiences or career connections to industry as programs I could find in other states.
After raising students to be objective and smart about their STEM degree choices, college resources and career prospects, what would you do? It’s not a grand epiphany for many high-school graduates to choose to go elsewhere.
This is not a slam on our state’s colleges and universities.
Washington’s four-year colleges and universities are successful for what they offer. However, in STEM areas, seats are limited.
While efforts have been made to increase capacity in STEM baccalaureate programs, these efforts remain inadequate to meet student and industry demand. This is particularly true for the fields of computer science and engineering. Even the UW Bothell expansion STEM center is turning students away.
According to a March report from Washington STEM, Washington state is a national leader in the number of STEM jobs. But when we look at the number of students participating in graduate programs in science and engineering, Washington ranks 46th among states.
STEM students have little financial or program incentives to stay in Washington. Across the country, numerous colleges and universities attract students through various incentives including: preferred admission into STEM majors, articulated credit for rigorous high-school STEM coursework, enhanced financial aid and integrated experiences with STEM industry partners leading to multiple job opportunities.
For example, more universities should work with high schools to provide STEM programs through partnerships such as Project Lead the Way. By offering college credit for classes completed in high school and offering preferred admission for students who complete these programs, the project encourages students to pursue STEM studies while still in high school. These partnerships build a strong regional pipeline of students for those universities, which produce more graduates for STEM-related jobs in those states.
Many of these incentives are sorely lacking in our current system. Like other states, Washington should create a higher-education technical institute: our own Washington Institute of Technology, a WIT focused on multiple STEM baccalaureate programs.
Similar to RIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Oregon Institute of Technology, a Washington institute could be a public and private partnership where business and industry make targeted investments in the school and provide cooperative work placements to give students access to valuable on-the-job experience. These placements ground students’ schooling in real work settings.
The cooperative work experiences are required as part of their degree programs. By the time these students graduates from college, they have four or five degree-related job experiences that helped position them to launch their careers.
Such an institute in Washington would meet the needs and interests of motivated and capable high school graduates who might otherwise choose to leave our state to pursue their STEM studies.
If we want to do better as a state in STEM from K-12 to higher education to industry, we need to do better across that entire pathway.
We are competing for talent. To keep more STEM-capable students in Washington, we must address issues of capacity as well as financial, program and employment incentives. Success would result in more students attending STEM-focused higher education here in Washington, helping both the students and our state’s economy.
My son graduates in May with a degree in chemical engineering. Now he’s evaluating his options for jobs. Let’s hope Washington state is on the list.
Nick Brossoit is in his 10th year as Superintendent of the Edmonds School District. He has a doctorate in educational leadership from Seattle University.