Finding the Leaks in the Pipeline

Minority students' dropoff in science and math persistence occurs later in college years, new study suggests.
April 4, 2006

Among the many concerns that policy makers, politicians and others have expressed about the current state of American science and math education has been the comparatively low rate at which black and Hispanic students -- the country's fastest growing populations -- enter and thrive in high-demand science and technology fields. And foremost among the presumed causes of those low rates has been the idea that those students, because of lack of academic preparation, are failing early in their college careers to get through courses that are designed to weed out less qualified students from those majors.

A study released Monday by the American Council on Education suggests that a relative lack of academic preparation in high school does indeed diminish Hispanic and African-American students' chances of completing degrees in science, math and technology fields. But the report, "Increasing the Success of Minority Students in Science and Technology," finds that the problem comes significantly later in students careers.

Black students who enrolled in college in 1995-6 were just as likely as their white peers to major in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, while Hispanic students were more likely than both of those groups and second only to Asian-American students, as the table that follows shows:

Percent of 1995-6 Enrollees Majoring in Various Fields, by Race

Major White African-Amer. Hispanic Asian-Amer.
Humanities 10.3% 7.1% 8.1% 7.0%
Social sciences 8.8 7.5 9.6 6.0
STEM 18.0 18.6 22.7 26.4
Education 8.1 6.5 6.8 1.0
Business 10.3 10.9 15.2 10.0
Health 6.8 7.1 5.9 10.0
8.7 6.1 7.8 3.0
Undecided 28.9 36.4 23.9 36.8

And by the spring of 1998, when those students are three years into their college careers, members of the various racial and ethnic groups who began majoring in science and technology fields are still enrolled and majoring in those fields at strikingly similar rates, as evidenced below:

Where 1995-6 STEM Majors Were by Spring 1998

Status African-American/Hispanic White Asian-American
Enrolled in 4-year college/
majoring in STEM field
55.7% 57.1% 57.2%
22.5 25.3 23.5
10.7 9.5 6.2
Not enrolled anywhere/
last major not STEM
11.0 8.0 13.1

But by spring 2001, the pipeline has sprung a leak. By that six-year mark, 62.5 percent of the African-American and Hispanic students majoring in STEM fields had earned bachelor's degrees, compared to 86.7 percent of white students and 94.8 percent of Asian-American students. Most of the rest of the black and Hispanic students -- 28.8 percent -- were still enrolled at four-year institutions, so it's not as if they had necessarily failed. But, the study finds, they clearly had taken an "unexpected detour" in their careers that put them behind their peers.

To offer some insight as to why, the report next compares the characteristics (regardless of race) of those science and technology majors who had completed their degrees and those who had not. Those who had finished their programs of study were significantly likelier than the "non-completers" to have taken a "rigorous" high school curriculum (42 percent vs. 18 percent  of the "non-completers"); to have at least one parent with a college degree (64.4 percent vs. 38 percent of non-completers); and to be from families in the highest third of the national population in average income (47 percent vs. 28.1 percent).

Those who earned their degree were also more likely to be enrolled full time (75 percent vs. 49.3 percent) and less likely to work at least 15 hours a week (27.1 percent vs. 42.6 percent of non-completers). The students who did not finish their degrees were far less likely to have received financial aid grants worth at least $5,000 in their first year of study, by a margin of 7.6 percent vs. 38.5 percent).

While inadequate academic preparation is a major factor in the failure of black and Hispanic students to earn degrees in science and technology fields, the report of the study concludes, "the biggest challenge for institutions seeking to improve student persistence in encouraging students to work less and attend full time consistently.

"This is a major challenge because these are two areas that institutions can do little to control," the report adds. "[I]nstitutions should provide academic advising and financial aid options that encourage students to enroll full time and reduce their need to work more than 14 hours a week."


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