“But it’s all math.”
—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 a distracted America fails to take the threat seriously, no one comes off particularly well.
Randall Mindy, a Michigan State astronomy professor 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, a former nude model, is preoccupied with an unqualified Supreme Court nominee (and her current paramour). Even Jennifer Lawrence’s grad student, seemingly the voice of reason, spends her end of days drinking with a bunch of skateboarders behind an abandoned Burger King. And all anyone else wants to talk about is the breakup 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 percent probability it will hit Earth. As 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 forewarns 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, 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 in science and tech. A survey from staffing giant Randstad found that if they could do it over again, 68 percent 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 illiteracy is hobbling America. It’s not a coincidence that U.S. math scores fall below those of 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 to 2017, the number of computer science faculty only increased by 17 percent. Schools like the University of Maryland, UC San Diego, UT Austin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have since limited enrollment in computer science courses. Last year North Carolina 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 of those weeded out of science/tech are women, underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. Black students once earned nearly 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science/tech majors. Today it’s only 7 percent.
While 58 percent of white students who start science/tech degrees end up completing them, only 43 percent of Latino and 34 percent of Black students do. Against a baseline of white students attempting science/tech majors, Black students are 19 percent more likely to switch out and Latino students are 13 percent 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 and 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 reviewed a representative sample of Cal State, SUNY, CUNY and PASSHE institutions—only 38 percent 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 M.B.A.? 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 20 most selective colleges and universities, 61 percent 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. Sixty-two percent of nursing schools report an inability to compete for faculty with hospitals and health-care 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 health-care 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 CSU 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 pre-eminence of science/tech education. If you don’t understand that, try looking up. Second, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, let me tell you about science/tech workers—they are different from you and me. This means:
- Paying salaries for science/tech faculty that reflect opportunity cost;
- Adding recruiting channels to consider candidates without traditional academic backgrounds;
- Agreeing that leadership should look like the economy the institution is supposed to be serving: diverse for sure, but also increasingly weighted to science/tech;
- And therefore intentionally seeking out candidates with science/tech backgrounds as deans, provosts and presidents and paying what it takes to attract and retain them.
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 $400,000), 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. Moreover, it exacerbates inequality. The idea that Michigan State and CSU Dominguez Hills will produce their share of accountants but not astrophysicists is horrific.
Maybe not horrific like a comet destroying Earth in six 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.