“But it's all math.”
- Dr. Randall Mindy, Don't Look Up
In the Academy Award-nominated Don’t Look Up, the Adam McKay-Netflix climate change parable about a Michigan State Ph.D candidate’s discovery of a comet heading right for us and how distracted America fails to take the threat seriously, no one comes off particularly well. Dr. Randall Mindy, a Michigan State astronomer played by Leonardo DiCaprio, becomes a showboating celebrity who has an affair with a fake and fatuous morning show host (Cate Blanchett). Meryl Streep’s self-centered president is preoccupied with an unqualified Supreme Court nominee, a former nude model and current paramour. Even Jennifer Lawrence’s grad student, seemingly the voice of reason, spends her end of days drinking with a bunch of skateboaders behind an abandoned Burger King. And all anyone else wants to talk about is the break up of social media celebrities DJ Chello and singer Riley Bina (Ariana Grande).
The film’s only real hero is math. Math and science are how the comet was discovered and how we know there's a 99.78% probability the comet will hit. As Jennifer Lawrence’s character is preparing to tell the President about the extinction-level event coming in six months and 14 days, her boyfriend pleads with her to try to build a good relationship with his mom. Her response is to suggest lunch with his mom in seven months. He replies: “that's weirdly specific and distant.” But it goes to show that when you’re good at math, you can come up with creative answers to all kinds of problems.
In a world where technology forwarns us of our demise and where a tech billionaire can convince the president to let the comet hit (hopefully in smaller pieces) in order to collect rare earth elements for his devices (the proximate cause of our distraction – that and parenthetically name dropping celebrities (tech billionaire played by Mark Rylance)), not all postsecondary programs are created equal. Math and science are more likely to result in better economic outcomes; 23 of the top 25 paying majors are scientific and technical. As Georgetown’s Tony Carnevale says, “the more specific and technical the degree, the better graduates do out of the gate.” As careers progress, this gap persists; according to Indeed, 22 of the top 25 paying jobs are science/tech. A survey from staffing giant Randstad found that if they could do it over again, 68% of U.S. employees would choose a science/tech field of study.
Economics aside, the value of science/tech education has never been clearer. Quantitative iliteracy is hobbling America. It’s not a coincidence that the U.S. math scores fall below 24 other developed countries and that red states and blue states are increasingly evaluating and acting on risks based on ideology or grievance rather than any effort to assess (let alone calculate) probability. With emerging cybersecurity and AI risks, this deficit has immediate ramifications for national security, the future of our democracy, and our way of life. It is amply clear that in a technological world, by necessity, the bar for science/tech literacy must be much higher.
What have colleges and universities done in response? Not nearly enough. While student demand for computer science more than doubled from 2013-17, the number of computer science faculty only increased by 17%. Schools like University of Maryland, UC San Diego, UT Austin and UIUC have since limited enrollment in computer science courses. Last year NC State had twice as many applicants as available places in computer science.Instead, colleges and universities have doubled down on strategies for limiting enrollment in science/tech programs including outdated prerequisites and weed-out courses like calculus. Universities like UCLA and UIUC have imposed minimum GPA requirements for students wishing to major in computer science or mechanical engineering. During the Obama Administration, the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that science/tech degree programs at most colleges and universities operate according to the principle that there are those who have the ability to succeed, there are those who don’t, and only academic departments have the wisdom to know the difference. Although the scale of the challenge is increasingly understood (along with potential solutions like transforming weed-out courses to active learning, making calculus content more relevant, reducing emphasis on procedural fluency and rote memorization, and increasing mentorship), nothing has fundamentally changed in the last decade.
That might not be an extinction-level disaster but for the fact that a disproportionately large percentage weeded out of science/tech are women, underrepresented minorities, and first-generation students. Black students once earned nearly 10% of bachelor’s degrees in science/tech majors, today it’s only 7%. While 58% of white students who start science/tech degrees end up completing them, only 43% of Latino and 34% of Black students do. Against a baseline of White students attempting science/tech majors, Black students are 19% more likely to switch out and Latino students are 13% more likely. And research shows that women are more sensitive to poor grades that often accompany weed-out courses and more likely to change direction.
Why haven’t colleges and universities kept up with the dramatic changes to the ways we work and live? Here’s some math we should pay attention to. I asked my colleague Natasha Sakraney to look up the educational backgrounds of the top five officers – president, provost, and top deans (typically dean of the graduate school + deans of undergraduate colleges) – at various institutions. Our question: how prevalent is a science/tech background among college and university leaders? The answer: it depends.
At less selective institutions – we looked at Cal State, SUNY, CUNY, and PASSHE – only 38% of higher education leaders had an undergraduate or graduate degree with any science/tech. We were generous in our definition. A president who double majored in political science and math, but went on to get an MBA? He checks the box.
How should we feel about the fact that slightly more than one of three leaders at these public universities has an educational background in the areas forming the future of our economy, society, and politics? Take a beat and consider the different picture at the other end of the higher education spectrum. At the most selective colleges and universities, 61% of presidents, provosts, and deans have a science/tech background.
This substantiates my hypothesis. As science/tech majors earn higher salaries out of the gate, teaching carries a higher opportunity cost. One big reason America doesn’t have enough nurses is that the potential to earn more consistently draws nursing faculty back into practice. 62% of nursing schools report an inability to compete for faculty with hospitals and healthcare systems. (It’s gotten much worse over the past two years due to the explosion in compensation for travel nurses. NPR helpfully covered this phenomenon last week, finding, yes, travel nurses make more money. But here's the thing: they have to travel.) Although healthcare employers may be eating their own seed corn by paying more for talent that might otherwise be teaching, good luck trying to change employer behavior! We find a similar phenomenon with faculty in other in-demand fields like computer science and engineering.
Similarly, those who begin teaching in science/tech are less likely to seek higher education leadership positions than those teaching in other, less lucrative fields. If they’re willing to take on the headaches that come with management, they can make much more money (and have fewer headaches) outside the academy. For a generational sociology talent, there aren’t many better or more remunerative jobs than a college presidency; but for a generational engineering talent, there are. The exception, it seems, is prestigious institutions where status bestowed by leadership positions outweighs other concerns. That and money sloshing around thanks to federal NSF/NIH funding and private donations not generally available at places like Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Why should we care if there’s less science/tech leadership at less selective universities? We looked for a connection with the percentage of students majoring in science/tech. The regression we ran indicates moderate correlation: science/tech leadership is somewhat predictive of students majoring in science/tech. This makes sense. Presidents, provosts, and deans steeped in science/tech are more likely to recognize the magnitude of digital transformation and prioritize adding/expanding science/tech programs and increasing accessibility. Not all higher education leaders with a science/tech background are going to do a better job here than those that don’t. But it stands to reason that, ceteris paribus, those with a science/tech background, network, and industry connections will do more and/or be more effective.
So boards of trustees at less selective colleges and universities need to understand two things. First, the new preeminence of science/tech education. If you don’t understand that, pay attention (look up from that device that’s obviously distracting you). Second, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, let me tell you about science/tech workers, they are different from you and me. This means:
Are science/tech faculty and leaders worth more? Is it worth rocking current clubby college pay scales? The economy already recognizes that not all programs are created equal. It’s time colleges and universities did as well with respect to both programs and leadership: in 2022, ceteris paribus, a president who’s an engineer is more valuable than a president who’s an anthropologist. Plus the federal government thinks so. While federal employees are subject to a salary cap (can’t make more than the president’s $400K), many federal science/tech workers aren’t hired and paid as part of the civil service but rather under agency-specific authorities that allow for special pay rates.
In Don't Look Up, the Michigan State astronomers share the bad news with the president at an inopportune time: midterm elections are just three weeks away. So the president decides not to tell the nation immediately, but rather to “sit tight and assess.” She also tells her team to “get some other people on this. Some Ivy Leaguers.”
It’s a joke. But having done some math, less funny than I thought. With their tiny enrollment and refusal to expand, elite schools can’t be the primary reservoir of science/tech talent. It’s a national competitiveness issue. It also exacerbates inequality. The idea that Michigan State and Cal State Dominguez Hills will produce their share of accountants but not astrophysicists is horrific. Maybe not horrific like a comet destroying earth in 6 months and 14 days. But if leaders at less selective schools fail to prioritize science/tech – i.e., put science/tech ahead of other fields strategically, operationally, and financially – we’ll be looking down at continued erosion in employment outcomes and ability to repay student loans.
In addition to serving the needs of the economy, producing more science/tech grads means colleges and universities will have more candidates for open faculty positions. That means more seats in science/tech programs and more new programs. Moving from here to there – from the current vicious circle to a virtuous one – is a massive management challenge. Hiring more science/tech presidents, provosts, and deans could be the quickest path to help students look up.
Thanks to Achieve Partners associate Natasha Sakraney and Professor Jonathan Barnett of USC Law School for their assistance.