Graduation Gaps for Science Majors

Students who start as STEM majors complete degrees at far lower rates than do students in other fields, study finds.
February 17, 2010

More and more students are starting college with plans to major in science and technology fields, but a new study finds that their completion rates are lagging – especially among underrepresented minorities.

Analyzing hundreds of thousands of college freshmen, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute have found good news and bad news about students who are interested in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The findings are detailed in “Degrees of Success,” a preliminary report tracking students who started college in the fall of 2004, authored by the institute’s Mitchell Chang, Sylvia Hurtado, Kevin Eagan and Josephine Gasiewski.

The good news: students hoping to major in STEM fields are growing as a proportion of the overall student population, reaching Cold War-era levels of interest. The bad news: students who start out planning to major in STEM fields graduate at far lower rates than their non-STEM classmates, especially if they’re black, Latino or Native American. “We’re seeing this increase over the last 15 years in students’ interest in STEM fields,” said Eagan, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, “but we’re not seeing a corresponding increase in students’ graduation rates.”

Among fall 2004 first-time, full-time freshmen, just under 31 percent reported plans to major in a STEM field, surveys conducted by the institute’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program and the National Student Clearinghouse found. In total, the two groups surveyed 201,588 students at 326 four-year, nonprofit institutions. In the mid-1980s, less than a quarter of freshmen said they wanted to major in a STEM field.

The numbers are even more encouraging for last fall’s freshman class. In the 2009 CIRP freshman survey, 34.3 percent of white and Asian-American students and 34.1 percent of black, Latino and Native American students said they planned to major in a STEM discipline. Overall rates were similarly high in the early 1970s, but a substantially higher percentage of white and Asian-American students were interested in STEM majors than underrepresented minority students.

“It’s really positive that we’re seeing growth in the percentage of students entering college who are interested in pursuing a STEM major across races,” said Chang, another coauthor, who is a professor of higher education and organizational change at UCLA.

Because some of the largest-ever proportions of students are starting college interested in STEM, Chang said, “all the blame here can’t be placed on K-12 education” for not preparing enough American scientists and engineers, as some workforce experts and politicians argue.

Instead, much of that blame lies with the nation’s colleges and universities for deterring students somewhere between freshman year and the completion of a bachelor’s degree in four or five years, he said. “Something that happens in college – and it goes beyond just preparation – is losing students.”

A third of white students and 42 percent of Asian-American students who started college as intended STEM majors graduated with STEM degrees by the end of five years. For underrepresented minorities, the five-year completion rates were much lower -- 22.1 percent for Latino students, 18.4 percent for black students and 18.8 percent for Native American students. Some of those students may have still graduated in four or five years but changed to a non-STEM major or transferred out of the institution they entered as freshmen. Others may still be working on their degrees.

Even “more alarming,” as the report put it, than the racial differences in STEM graduation rates are the huge gaps in graduation rates between students who start college in STEM fields and students who start in all other areas of study, regardless of whether the degree is in a STEM or non-STEM field.

While 42 percent of white students and 46 percent of Asian-American students who started as STEM majors graduated in four years, 61.3 percent of white students and 65 percent of Asian-Americans who started out in non-STEM fields completed bachelor’s degrees in four years. The same gaps, of roughly 20 percent, exist in the five-year completion rates of students who start out in STEM and those who don’t.

Thirty percent of Latino students who started in STEM fields earned degrees in four years, while 41.6 percent completed them within five years. For students who started in non-STEM fields, those numbers percentages are 56.1 and 67.6, respectively. Graduation rates for Native Americans were slightly lower but similarly differentiated by field. For black students, rates were even lower, with 23 percent of freshman STEM majors earning degrees in four years and 32.2 percent in five years, while the numbers for non-STEM majors were 49 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

The institute’s continued analysis of data related to the fall 2004 freshman cohort will try to determine “things that actually work” in helping undergraduates earn STEM degrees, like involvement in research, types of classroom instruction and extracurricular activities.


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