Signaling STEM Full Steam Ahead! But Along What Path?

by Cong Chen and Julia Panke Makela / Jan 29, 2013

There is little question that in today’s workforce there exists a high demand for qualified workers in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 1 This demand stretches across educational levels, from those with certificates, to associate degrees, to bachelor’s degrees, and beyond. The messages about the needs of this field and the popularity of STEM fields have become hard to overlook.

OCCRL’s Applied Baccalaureate research team is deeply entrenched in exploring the conversations and messages expressed in and around STEM environments. We have spent much of fall 2012 visiting science and engineering programs to learn how baccalaureate degree pathways are developed that provide opportunities for graduates of applied associate degree programs to transfer all (or nearly all) of their credits to bachelor’s degree programs.

Along the way, we’ve been intrigued to hear about the signals that students hear in their environments about what it means to pursue a STEM degree and career. What do they hear from colleges and universities, employers, media, and each other? And how do they understand what those messages mean for them personally?

This blog shares how we are beginning to make sense of what we are hearing. We briefly introduce A. Michael Spence’s signaling theory, which offers a framework to guide our thinking. Then, we share an example of the environmental signals that we experienced while visiting a set of cybersecurity degree programs in the Maryland–Washington, DC–Delaware area. This is followed with some example data demonstrating student responses to those signals, and some of our reflections on those data.

Brief Comments on Signaling Theory

Signaling theory is essentially about communication – how one group shares information with another, and how that information is interpreted and acted upon. The theory was developed by A. Michael Spence to describe a labor market phenomenon of how job candidates and potential employers communicate during the hiring process.2 Academic degrees served as a “signal” to employers of the skills and qualifications that a candidate would bring to a job.

Higher education scholars have applied this idea of signals to other areas. For instance, Michael Kirst and Andrea Venezia explored the “signals” that students receive regarding their transitions from high school to college.3 They found that the signals sent by high school personnel impact how students chose to prepare for college, and therefore, have a considerable impact on student success. Susan Furman and Jennifer O’Day found that clear signals regarding necessary academic preparation had positive impacts on students’ learning and outcomes; whereas vague or mixed signals negatively influenced students’ preparation for and motivation to pursue college.4

Example Signals

When visiting a number of cybersecurity degree programs in the Maryland–Washington, DC–Delaware area, our site visit team encountered messages from program faculty, administrators, and advisors, as well as local employers, advisory board members, and other stakeholders, stating that information security is one of the fastest growing career areas in information technology, and Maryland has become known as a “global epicenter of cybersecurity” (Senator Mikulski, October 16, 2012). We were repeatedly told that every organization in the country needs to safeguard their technology systems, and that although many cybersecurity positions required a bachelor’s degree, many entry-level information assurance specialists could begin their careers with an associate degree.

Example Student Responses

When visiting degrees programs, we conducted focus groups with students who were currently enrolled in both associate degree and bachelor’s degree programs in the cybersecurity field. These students echoed the messages that we heard from program faculty, administrators, and advisors, as well as local employers, advisory board members, and other stakeholders, when discussing their decisions to pursue this degree field. For example, associate degree-seeking students shared that when looking at economic markets and growth, “the biggest field is information security” (AAS Student Focus Group, Participant 2a) and “my friends who are computer experts say you need to speak the language – the computer language – to be successful. So, I started just to be more marketable in the job force” (AAS Student Focus Group, Participant 1a). A bachelor’s degree-seeking student shared that the specialized knowledge in computer security gained in his program would lead him to “so many different avenues” (BS Student Focus Group, Participant 5b) for job opportunities.

Some students were able to articulate specific career pathways. For example, one senior student in the bachelor’s degree program mentioned:

I’m looking to try to go overseas and work … There’s a lot of programs for military and ex-military. Like maybe Dubai. There are government contractor jobs. It’s tax free, and they pay good. A couple of things I looked at already were starting out at like $90,000 and then they give you housing and allowance and all that. They fly you home for major holidays. A lot of things. And, you learn. The stuff you learn over there you can bring back. You already have experience. (BS Student Focus Group, Participant 5b)

The vast majority of students, however, did not have such clear career directions, and demonstrated room for growth in career exploration and decision-making. Other senior bachelor’s degree-seeking students responded to questions about career aspirations with vague statements such as: “I’d like to work with the FBI or CIA, local law enforcement, something like that. … where ever I can find employment, really” (BS Student Focus Group, Participant 3b). The following excerpt from a focus group conversation with associate degree-seeking students was typical of responses from this group to questions about anticipated career paths:

Researcher:           What about looking forward? Where are these degrees going to take you? What career areas or jobs are you considering?
Participant 4a:      I don’t really know yet.
Participant 2a:      IT help desk.
Participant 5a:      Same thing. Help desk, and then hopefully grow.
Participant 2a:      In the company, yeah.
Participant 3a:      Yeah, help desk and then build from there too.

Interestingly, even when students’ career goals or potential employers remained vague, they did not exhibit anxiety or concern about future opportunities. Rather, they exhibited a sense of trust that “the classes are pretty great in that they push you into the right direction of becoming a security professional” and, if they “put in your own time to solidify yourself in the field… to hone your skills,” the career opportunities would emerge (BS Student Focus Group, Participant 6b).


Reflecting on these experiences, we observe that within the environment in which these cybersecurity degree programs operate, there exist clear signals about the availability of career opportunities in this field. Our site visit team experienced them personally, and we heard the signals echoed in the students’ words. These signals are motivators to get students into the STEM majors. Yet, we began to question, is entry into the field the end of the behavioral response that we would like to see from these students? Or, is there more?

These students’ statements seemed to indicate a lack of understanding of the field of cybersecurity – the opportunities, specializations, employers, and preparations that may be needed to pursue niche areas. Should we be concerned about the lack of career awareness and planning for their next steps beyond their immediate degree pursuits? What would be the value in encouraging a different response or action from students? What response would be desired, and how would signals need to be modified to achieve that goal? Finally, which environmental players (e.g., program faculty, administrators, advisors, advisory board members; employers, professional associations, government organizations) might play a role in developing and delivering those new signals?

There are many directions this conversation could take. And, we must acknowledge that there are already initiatives in development that may very well address some of the concerns outlined in this blog (e.g., the NICE Framework Resource Center). Strike up the conversation in the comments field and let us know the directions you want to go. Perhaps we can continue this dialog in our future blogs.


1 See: Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Melton, M. (2011). Science Technology Engineering Mathematics. Washington, DC: Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University. Retrieved from

2 Spence, A. M. (1974). Market Signaling: Informational Transfer in Hiring and Related Screening Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

3 Kirst, M., & Venezia, A. (Eds.). (2004). From high school to college: Improving opportunities for success in postsecondary education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

4 Fuhrman, S., & O’Day, J. (Eds.). (1996). Rewards and reform: Creating educational incentives that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.