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College administrators have long debated how to attract minority students -- black and Latinx men and women -- to science and technology fields.

It turns out these students already have an interest in those fields, at least according to a new study. But black and Latinx students enrolled in STEM programs are either switching majors or dropping out of college at higher rates than their white peers, the study concludes.

The study was published this month in the journal Educational Researcher. The authors are Catherine Riegle-Crumb, associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin's department of curriculum and instruction, her colleague Yasmiyn Irizarry, an assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies, and Barbara King, assistant professor of teaching and learning at Florida International University.

Using federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the researchers looked at more than 5,600 students, black, Latinx and white, who attended college for the first time in the 2003-04 academic year. They included students who started at four-year institutions and those who began at two-year colleges and transferred to four-year institutions.

The researchers found that there was little difference at the beginning of the students’ studies. About 19 percent of the white students declared as a STEM major, compared to 20 percent of Latinx students and 18 percent of black students.

But the minority students left the major at far higher rates than the white students -- about 37 percent of the Latinx students and 40 percent of the black students switched majors versus 29 percent of the white students.

And 20 percent of Latinx and 26 percent of black STEM majors left their institutions without earning a degree, the research showed. Only 13 percent of white STEM majors dropped out.

Previous studies have identified this trend before but had never compared STEM dropouts to dropouts who majored in other disciplines, a contrast that the professors thought was important, said Riegle-Crumb, the report’s lead author.

Among business majors, another field perceived as competitive, relatively equal numbers of white, Latinx and black students switched majors, the study found. The report did not reference Asian students, because despite being overrepresented in STEM majors, their sample size in other majors was not large enough that the researchers felt comfortable including them, Riegle-Crumb said.

Though the study identified a troubling trend, the researchers did not pinpoint exactly why the students of color were dropping STEM studies, Riegle-Crumb said.

The researchers also adjusted their data to account for the fact that Latinx and black students typically perform worse in high school and come from poorer backgrounds, she said.

“We definitely need more investigation into these things, what’s actually happening within classrooms, to be able to measure the experiences of youth of different backgrounds,” Riegle-Crumb said.

The professors did theorize why some students of color may leave college without completing their studies. Other research has found that STEM programs are often structured in a way in which students have to essentially prove their intellectual worth to stay, the study states. Essentially, they may be forced out if they don't meet high academic standards.

Minority students already face unfair stereotypes about being intellectually inferior, and this is likely exacerbated in STEM programs, according to the study. This issue was explored in a book by Maya Beasley, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, called Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite (University of Chicago Press). Beasley interviewed black students and white students at two prominent universities and unearthed these sorts of obstacles faced by the students of color.

Riegle-Crumb said research has proven that minority students are also more inclined to pursue majors and careers that are aligned with social justice issues, and they may find that the STEM fields are incompatible with those interests.

She said that leaders in STEM education should push back on the narrative that STEM fields do not provide students opportunities to be engaged in such issues. Engineering, for instance, is about building “new things that improve the quality of life,” Riegle-Crumb said.

“The narrative that black and Latino students are choosing to leave for occupations that make less money and have less status, well, I’m wary of that,” she said. “Why do they feel they have to make a choice for their preferences when white men feel they don’t?”

The study's findings were unsurprising to Darryl A. Dickerson, associate director of the minority engineering program at Purdue University and president of the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates.

Dickerson said that many students of color in STEM programs feel excluded at their institutions and have to form their own communities.

He recommended that institutions look at their own data on this issue. If students of color are exiting STEM majors at higher rates, then officials should be questioning why and addressing the problems that are driving students away.

“Ask those questions on a regular basis, ask the questions of students, of those who have graduated, and figure out the reasons they are leaving,” Dickerson said. “Consistently do those checks. It can’t be something that is happening every so often -- it has to be part of continuous quality improvement.”

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