The Benefits of a STEM-Designated Degree

The four disciplines encompassing STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—contain a wide range of professions and open the doors to many opportunities for innovation, research, and development. Students who pursue a STEM-designated degree program, such as Illinois Tech’s Master of Science in Management Science and Analytics, are exposed to a field of study that concentrates on one or more of those disciplines.

In 2012 the United States Department of Homeland Security expanded its list of STEM-designated degree programs and connected it to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, allowing international students on F1 student visas the opportunity to apply to OPT in their respective fields for up to 12 months, or up to 36 months for STEM majors, in the U.S. following graduation. 

Since then, the official list of STEM-designated degree programs has only expanded, with more than 500 degree programs established as STEM-designated as of July 12, 2023. These programs include everything from the traditional bench sciences (think biology and chemistry) and a range of engineering and computing disciplines, to programs that may surprise you—including many business degree programs.

While the emphasis on STEM across education and various disciplines is not an entirely new concept, the implementation of STEM-designated degree programs in higher education has become a fairly recent phenomenon, which directly correlates with growth in STEM careers and demand for STEM graduates.

With the growing abundance of STEM-designated programs in universities and colleges across the U.S., what are the benefits of pursuing a STEM-designated degree?

Expanding and Thriving Career Fields

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were almost 10 million workers in STEM careers in 2021, and that total is projected to increase by 11 percent by 2031. This means that STEM careers will be growing two times faster than the total of all occupations. Students graduating with a degree in a STEM-related major can expect job availability and longevity when entering STEM-oriented positions.  

The Department of Labor also projects the career growth of individual STEM occupations from 2021–2031, including:

High Return on Investment

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report in 2022 that determined a list of 34 degrees with the highest return on investment (ROI). Four categories were used to determine this: median monthly earnings net of debt, median monthly debt payments, median annualized earnings net of debt, and median debt. 

Out of the top 10 degree fields, more than half are STEM-related fields, with engineering at #1. Other STEM-related fields with the most profitability over time in this list included engineering technologies/technicians, science technologies/technicians, mathematics and statistics, computer and information sciences and support services, physical sciences, and more.

Professions with High Pay Scales

Students who graduate with a STEM-designated degree typically earn more than graduates with a non-STEM degree. According to a study conducted by the Department of Labor in May 2021, workers in STEM occupations earned a median annual wage of $95,420, while workers in non-STEM occupations earned $40,120—and while not every job and student might reach such salaries, these are averages and medians that provide a fair representation. 

Additionally, the National Science Foundation cited an American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau from 2019 that highlighted the median salaries and education levels of STEM and non-STEM workers and found that STEM workers have higher median salaries regardless of their education level. More specifically, the NSF determined that STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn a median salary that is 47 percent greater than that of non-STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Valuable Hands-On Experiences

When studying and conducting research within a STEM-designated degree program, students are able to experience hands-on learning opportunities that will prepare them for real-world application. Working in labs, collaborating on projects, and conducting research are just some of the opportunities that STEM students get to experience when completing their degree. 

At Illinois Tech, the university’s one-of-a-kind Elevate program guarantees access to hands-on, real-world learning experiences for students, giving them opportunities to participate in research, in-person or virtual internships, and competitions that will help students be career-ready upon graduation. 

Other Illinois Tech learning initiatives such as the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program brings students of various majors together to collaborate on research projects that are centered around real-world problems. By taking part in IPRO, students are able to learn valuable skills in leadership, creativity, project management, and teamwork that are necessary in today’s workforce. All students also have access to experiential learning spaces with state-of-the-art technology and cutting-edge tools, such as the Idea Shop or the Grainger Maker Space, which allow students to put their ideas into action. Additionally, students with at least one experience, internship, or co-op earned $10,000 more in initial compensation in their first job after graduation than students that did not take part in at least one experience, internship, or co-op.

Optional Practical Training for International Students

One important aspect of STEM-designated degree programs is that they can provide extensions to OPT—a valuable period of training and work experience for recently graduated international students who have studied in the U.S. This means that international students can apply to gain up to 24 months of an extended student visa added to the 12 months they get through OPT. That is up to 36 months where international students can gain enriching work experience in the U.S. that will set them up for future success in their respective fields.   

Illinois Tech currently offers 306 STEM-designated degree programs available for students who are looking to pursue a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree.