A Portrait of STEM Majors

Federal study finds that those who specialize in science and technology fields in college are disproportionately male and Asian, and more likely than peers to earn a degree.
July 30, 2009

From new federal grant programs to angst-ridden reports to Congressional scrutiny, concern has accelerated without pause in recent years about whether the United States is drawing enough young people to study science and technology fields in college. Policy makers have paid comparatively little attention, however, to how the students who enter those disciplines fare, and whether they stay in those fields once they enter them.

A new federal study aims to remedy that. The report, "Students Who Study Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in Postsecondary Education," from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, examines three federal databases to follow students who enter those high-demand fields through the higher education pipeline.

In addition to largely reaffirming the demographic profile of the 23 percent of students who chose to major in science and technology fields during their undergraduate careers -- disproportionately male, Asian and of foreign citizenship, and more likely to be of traditional age than older -- the study puts the outcomes of those students side by side with their peers who do not major in science fields, and finds that they compare favorably.

Students who entered college in 1995-96 and majored in a STEM field some time between then and 2001 earned a degree or certificate at a rate of 54.9 percent, compared to 50.6 percent for students who did not choose a science or technology major. Within science fields, the rates were highest for those in the physical sciences (68.4 percent), natural sciences (63.5), and mathematics (61.4 percent), and lowest for those in computer or information sciences (46.4). Fifty-three percent of engineering students earned a credential, but they were least likely among their STEM peers to earn a bachelor's degree (as opposed to an associate degree or certificate).

But while the general outcomes of science and technology students were stronger than their peers, the degrees they earned were not necessarily in STEM fields. Of the 1995-96 entering students who majored in a STEM field at some point during their undergraduate careers, 40.7 percent got a degree or certificate in a science, math or technology field and another 12 percent were still enrolled in one of those fields, but 20.6 percent had left STEM disciplines entirely and 26.7 percent had left postsecondary education.

White students in STEM majors were likelier than their peers of other races to have earned a degree (43.9 percent vs. 39.9 percent for Asian, 33.1 percent for Hispanic, and 31.7 percent for black), and those whose parents had at least a bachelor's degree were far likelier than STEM majors whose parents had less education to get a degree.


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