09 Feb Your college major could be an indication
by Jonathan Wai
Do students who choose to major in different fields have different academic aptitudes? This question is worth investigating for many reasons, including an understanding of what fields top students choose to pursue, the diversity of talent across various fields, and how this might reflect upon the majors and occupations a culture values. In order to explore this, I used five different measures of US students’ academic aptitude, which span 1946 to 2014, and discovered that the rank order of cognitive skills of various majors and degree holders has remained remarkably constant for the last seven decades. An important caveat: The data presented looks only at group averages and does not speak to the aptitude of specific individuals. Obviously there are people with high academic aptitude in every major and there can be larger aptitude differences between entire schools—for example the University of Chicago and a local community college—than between majors within a school. Also interests, which are not directly assessed here, likely play an important role in which major someone selects. One could argue that any one specific test and sample may not be an accurate reflection of the aptitude of specific majors, and this would be a valid point. However, this analysis uses five independent measures and samples of academic aptitude at different points in time—which include everything from tests of cognitive abilities to tests of academic achievement—showing these findings replicate and are quite robust.
The second sample was scores from 38,420 US college seniors who took the Selective Service College Qualification Test (SSCQT) put on the AGCT scale in 1951. This was a 150-item test measuring students’ mathematical and verbal ability that does not appear to be in use today.In both samples, the pattern was nearly identical. Students who had chosen to major in education and agriculture had the lowest average academic aptitude, whereas the opposite was found for engineering and physical sciences.
According to a recent Payscale college salary report, STEM majors tend to be the most highly compensated. That STEM majors have consistently had the highest average academic aptitude may also reflect the fact that STEM disciplines are highly complex and require such aptitude. Even scientists in the “hard” STEM fields (e.g. physics, math) tend to believe that these fields require brilliance or genius according to a recent paper published in Science by Sarah-Jane Leslie and colleagues, perhaps because it is true, at least in part. In some of my research, even within the top 1% on the SAT-Mathematics (SAT-M) for talented test takers at age 12, a higher score was associated with a higher likelihood of these students eventually earning a STEM PhD, publication, patent, and university tenure. Additionally, Stephen Hsu and James Schombert used five years of university academic records to show that the probability of success of being at the top of one’s cohort in a physics or math major (but not other majors such as sociology, history, English, or biology) was highly dependent on an individual’s SAT-M score. For example, earning a score of roughly below 600 on the math portion made the probability of attaining a superior academic record in physics or math very low. Perhaps the STEM disciplines have always selected on academic aptitude and employers have rewarded that aptitude and skillset due to STEM’s usefulness in a variety of fields.
Why have education majors consistently been at the bottom?
These data show that US students who choose to major in education, essentially the bulk of people who become teachers, have for at least the last seven decades been selected from students at the lower end of the academic aptitude pool. A 2010 McKinsey report (pdf) by Byron Auguste, Paul Kihn, and Matt Miller noted that top performing school systems, such as those in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea, “recruit 100% of their teacher corps from the top third of the academic cohort.” The US certainly recruits some of its teachers from the top of the aptitude distribution, including at top education schools such as Harvard University and Vanderbilt University. Additionally, Teach for America often selects students from highly selective institutions, which have already filtered students based on academic aptitude.
Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America, has argued that what top students choose to study greatly influences a society down the road. The McKinsey team stated that closing the talent gap, or following the lead from some other countries and selecting teachers from the high end of the academic aptitude continuum may help improve education for US students. We really don’t know if this strategy would work, but given that the rank order of academic aptitudes for various majors has remained stubbornly constant for the last seven or more decades, it will be extremely difficult to shift what our culture values from traditional STEM (including medical) disciplines to education and teaching, at least in the short term. A recent article by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch in Education Next highlights, however, that the SAT scores of first year teachers has recently been on the rise.
How this reflects what US culture values
Why has the rank order of average academic aptitude across various areas been strikingly the same? That remains unclear. For one thing, however, it reflects upon the majors and resulting occupations that US culture has consistently valued for the last seven or more decades. We will have to wait and see if in the next seven decades, this pattern of academic aptitude across majors will change, and if so, in what ways. What majors and occupations future generations of top students choose to pursue directly impacts a nation’s future economy.