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More Students Are Earning STEM Degrees

Group of students engineers working on a computer part

The number of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) has risen dramatically in California. Both students and colleges are responding to changes in our economy, which increasingly rewards highly educated workers, especially those with STEM degrees.

Between 2010–11 and 2016–17, the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded by colleges and universities in California increased 55%, more than triple the rate of growth in other degrees (17%). By 2016–17, 20% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded were in a STEM field, up from 16% in 2010–11.

These increases occurred across the board for all STEM fields and for all higher education sectors in the state. Increases were especially sharp in engineering, which surpassed biology as the most common STEM degree. Computer and information sciences also saw big gains, with almost three times as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2016–17 as in 2010–11. The increase in computer science is particularly notable, as its popularity had declined after the “dot com” bust of the early 2000s.

STEM fields are especially popular at the University of California (UC), which awards almost half of the state’s STEM degrees (compared to only 21% of other bachelor’s degrees). In contrast, California State University (CSU) awards 37% of the state’s bachelor’s degrees in STEM, compared to more than half (52%) in other majors. STEM is also less common at private colleges, especially for-profit institutions.

But there is wide variation across colleges. At UC San Diego (56%) and UC Merced (48%), about half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2016–17 were in a STEM field, compared to only 27% at UC Santa Barbara. In the CSU system, 37% of bachelor’s degrees at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo were in STEM, compared to only 8% at Cal State Dominguez Hills. And among the state’s larger private nonprofit colleges (those with at least 1,500 bachelor’s degrees awarded), half of Stanford University’s bachelor’s degrees were in STEM, compared to only 8% at Azusa Pacific.

The rapid growth in STEM majors is a testament to changing interests among students. Those interests are academic, but also economic. Strong labor market outcomes for STEM graduates—especially for those with degrees in engineering and computer science—almost certainly contribute to the increasing demand for those majors.

Colleges have responded, at least in part, by building more capacity for STEM majors. Moreover, public colleges have led the way, with UC and CSU experiencing the largest shifts toward STEM degrees. Between 2010–11 and 2016–17, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM fields increased 6.8 percentage points at UC (from 30.0% to 36.8%) and 4.4 percentage points at CSU (from 10.7% to 15.1%), compared to only 2.7 percentage points at private nonprofit colleges (from 12.4% to 15.1%).

While more could be done to fully meet student demand—at many campuses, engineering and computer science majors have more applicants than can be accommodated—the evidence to date shows that California’s higher education system has been able to substantially increase capacity in STEM fields.

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