STEM-ming the Tide
About half of bachelor’s degree candidates in science, technology, engineering and math leave the field before completing a college degree, according to a report from the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. That might seem high, but it roughly tracks the rate at which students in other majors -- like humanities, education and health sciences -- switched majors or dropped out of college, too, the study found.
The report calculated the attrition rate in STEM fields and examined the characteristics of students more likely to abandon STEM fields. The report used data that tracked students enrolling in a bachelor’s or associate degree program in the 2003-4 academic year through 2009.
About 28 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates and 20 percent of associate degree candidates had declared a STEM major. Of those who had entered a STEM program, 48 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates had left the STEM field by spring 2009. The attrition rate was greater for associate degree candidates -- 69 percent of STEM entrants had left the STEM field during the course of the study. An October 2012 report tracking students who had entered postsecondary education in the 2003-2004 academic year found the same attrition rate for STEM entrants.
The attrition rate was highest for bachelor's degree candidates who declared a major in computer/information sciences and for associate degree candidates who declared a major in mathematics.
About half of those who left had switched into a non-STEM degree program and the other half had left college without earning any degree or certificate. The study found that 22 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates and 16 percent of associate’s degree students chose to pursue business majors.
Low-performing students (those with an overall grade point average below 2.5) were more likely to exit the STEM field by dropping out of college than were high-performing students (those with an overall GPA of 3.5 or higher). The high-performing students were more likely to switch to a non-STEM major than their low-performing peers.
The study found some differences in how men and women exited the STEM fields. More men than women left STEM disciplines by dropping out of college and more women than men left STEM by switching majors. According to the study, 32 percent of women who left STEM fields switched to a different major, compared with 26 percent of men. And 24 percent of men left the STEM field by dropping out of college, compared with 14 percent of women.
Taking lighter credits loads in STEM courses in the first year, taking less challenging math courses in the first year and performing poorly in STEM classes relative to non-STEM classes were associated with an increased probability of switching majors for STEM entrants, according to the study.
The report concluded that the attrition rate for STEM degree candidates (about 48 percent for those pursuing bachelor’s degrees) was similar to other fields. The attrition rate for bachelor’s degree candidates in the humanities, education and health sciences was between 52 and 62 percent; for business and social/behavioral sciences degree candidates, the attrition rate was between 45 and 50 percent.
The attrition rate for non-STEM students at the associate degree level were more comparable to the rates for STEM majors (69 percent) than was true at the bachelor’s degree level. The attrition rate for health sciences was 57 percent, 66 percent in business, 70 percent in education and 72 percent in humanities.