STEM Degrees Are Good for Careers. But Do They Lead to More Innovation?
Skip to content
Innovation Strategy Economics Jul 6, 2017

STEM Degrees Are Good for Careers. But Do They Lead to More Innovation?

Science, technology, engineering, and math education helps job prospects, but hurts the likelihood of becoming an inventor.

A graduate leaving university with a STEM degree.

Lisa Röper

Based on the research of

Nicola Bianchi

Michela Giorcelli

There is much buzz among educators and policy makers about the value of a STEM degree. Graduating with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) is indeed good for the individual, with studies showing better job prospects and higher pay. But what is the impact on the overall economy?

Add Insight
to your inbox.

Many people simply assume the economy benefits from STEM majors, believing that these graduates lead to more innovation and long-term economic growth. A 2012 report by a US presidential council, for example, was premised on the need to produce more STEM graduates in order to stay ahead of China and India. But what is the actual effect of a STEM education on innovation?

The answer is less obvious than it might seem. Even if future inventors are more likely to have majored in STEM fields, it is not necessarily true that education catalyzed those inventions.

In a new study, Nicola Bianchi of the Kellogg School collected data from a turning point in the history of his native Italy. In 1961, large numbers of students who had studied STEM subjects in high school suddenly gained access to a university-level STEM education. By tracking these students’ subsequent patent records and comparing them with those of similar students who graduated before 1961, Bianchi was able to tell what university education actually did for innovation.

He found that, surprisingly, the most talented STEM high school students actually patented much less after getting access to STEM majors than they had done before.

A STEM education, it turned out, opened up opportunities for these students beyond occupations that tend to produce patents. “Getting a STEM degree made these people eligible for other types of jobs,” Bianchi says, “and they took them.”

A Watershed Moment

For nearly four decades, starting in the 1920s, Italy’s Fascist policy dictated that only graduates of university-prep high schools could get a university-level degree in a STEM field. Graduates of technical high schools, in contrast, could not further their education no matter how much potential they showed. This included industrial students, who attended technical high schools specifically to prepare for jobs in construction, electronics, chemicals, and the like.

This rigid policy continued even after the fall of Fascism: in the aftermath of World War II, the education system was not exactly the first thing the country wanted to rebuild. But by the early 1960s, many Italians could see that education reform was necessary.

“Industry needed engineers,” Bianchi explains—workers with high-level skills that the industrial high schools simply were not producing. So starting in 1961, students from industrial high schools were allowed to enroll in university STEM majors. As a result, thousands of additional students flowed into these majors.

That abrupt change yielded the data that Bianchi and coauthor Michela Giorcelli at UCLA needed.

“The experiment here is to compare industrial students who are similar on a lot of characteristics,” Bianchi explains—except for a crucial fact. Some of those students completed high school before 1961, when they could not go on to earn a university STEM degree, while others graduated just after the educational expansion, meaning the researchers were able to compare cohorts of students who were only a few years apart.

The researchers focused on Milan, whose residents produce more Italian patents than any other city. Bianchi visited all the city’s public high schools, collecting information for students who graduated between 1958 and 1973. Though one of the 19 schools had lost its records, and another wouldn’t grant access to its archive, Bianchi managed to gather and digitize data from the rest of the schools—for a total of 46,473 students.

To analyze innovation outcomes, Bianchi then linked this education data to Italian and European patent data, tracking whether each student went on to patent an invention. While innovation comes in many forms, it is not always easy to measure. By using patents, Bianchi was able to focus on an easily measurable output of innovation.

A Surprise at the Top

So how did the students fare as inventors before and after they had access to a university STEM degree? The answer, it turned out, depended largely on how well the students had done before they reached college.

Bianchi found that the best high-school students—those who scored in the top 25 percent of their class on a national exit exam—were about 50 percent less likely to produce a patent if they graduated after the education reform, compared with their peers who had graduated before 1961.

“The relationship between scientific education and innovation is tricky.”

The bottom 75 percent of students, on the other hand, were somewhat more likely to become inventors if they had graduated after the reform.

It seems odd that the best students—those who stood to gain the most from a university education—would actually end up inventing less once they got access to STEM majors. So what explains this result?

Bianchi and Giorcelli had a hunch that the explanation had to do with the kinds of jobs industrial students could get with and without a university STEM degree.

To test this idea, they needed occupational data. Yet, when they started the project in 2014, Italy’s social security administration kept such information under wraps.

But then economist Tito Boeri with an appreciation for research data took the helm of the agency. Last summer, Bianchi and Giorcelli were able to delve into the administration’s archives in Rome.

They discovered that before the education reforms, top industrial students often became employees of manufacturing firms.

“Our idea is that they were in this occupation where they were very close to industrial processes, close to machines, and part of their job was to make their machines a little better,” Bianchi explains. “That entailed getting patents to improve industrial processes.”

For example, one inventor from this era patented a process for removing acidic gases from gas mixtures; another invented a device for testing industrial power screwdrivers.

After the education reform, top industrial students who earned college STEM degrees got better jobs outside the manufacturing sector, often becoming self-employed engineers. That’s a great job, Bianchi says, but it is not one where you produce a lot of patents.

Industrial students in the bottom three-quarters, on the other hand, tended to stay in the manufacturing sector. Their university degree paved the way to white-collar and management jobs in the same types of firms, engaging them even more closely in their employers’ innovation processes, and yielding more patents.

A Lesson for Policy Makers

Bianchi is quick to acknowledge that Italy in the 1970s and 1980s was very different from the United States today. Americans with only a high-school education do not produce many inventions, for example.

But one lesson from Italy’s experience is generalizable, Bianchi believes. In any country, some economic sectors produce many more patents than others. What’s more, people with STEM degrees have skills that are in demand by multiple sectors—including those fields that do not produce many patents.

Think of the brilliant physics students and computer science majors who get lured away by lucrative jobs in the finance sector. These Wall Street “quants” make a lot of money, but they rarely patent anything.

“The relationship between scientific education and innovation is tricky,” Bianchi concludes. “From a policy perspective, it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Let’s induce more people to go into STEM majors and get more STEM degrees so we’re for sure going to have more STEM workers in the economy, and these STEM workers are going to produce more innovation, and they’re going to increase economic growth, and they’re going to make our country great,’” he says. “It’s not that easy.”

About the Writer
Marina Krakovsky, author of The Middleman Economy (Palgrave Macmillan), writes and speaks about ideas in the social sciences.
About the Research
Bianchi, Nicola, and Michela Giorcelli. 2017. “Scientific Education and Innovation: From Technical Diplomas to University STEM Degrees.” Working paper.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  2. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  3. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  4. 6 Takeaways on Inflation and the Economy Right Now
    Are we headed into a recession? Kellogg’s Sergio Rebelo breaks down the latest trends.
    inflatable dollar sign tied down with mountains in background
  5. What Is the Purpose of a Corporation Today?
    Has anything changed in the three years since the Business Roundtable declared firms should prioritize more than shareholders?
    A city's skyscrapers interspersed with trees and rooftop gardens
  6. How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have It
    Every interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.
    employee presents to CEO in elevator
  7. Why We Can’t All Get Away with Wearing Designer Clothes
    In certain professions, luxury goods can send the wrong signal.​
    Man wearing luxury-brand clothes walks with a cold wind behind him, chilling three people he passes.
  8. Why You Should Skip the Easy Wins and Tackle the Hard Task First
    New research shows that you and your organization lose out when you procrastinate on the difficult stuff.
    A to-do list with easy and hard tasks
  9. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  10. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  11. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  12. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  13. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  14. How Old Are Successful Tech Entrepreneurs?
    A definitive new study dispels the myth of the Silicon Valley wunderkind.
    successful entrepreneurs are most often middle aged
  15. How Offering a Product for Free Can Backfire
    It seems counterintuitive, but there are times customers would rather pay a small amount than get something for free.
    people in grocery store aisle choosing cheap over free option of same product.
  16. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  17. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  18. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
More in Innovation