In recent years, rural community colleges have done significantly better than their urban and suburban counterparts in the percentage increase of associate degrees awarded to women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.
And though the reasons for their relative success — which is detailed in the latest issue  of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering — remain unknown, community college researchers are suggesting policy recommendations in an attempt to replicate it elsewhere and boost the numbers of these underrepresented students. At the same time, they say STEM educators should not forget about their male students, who appear to be falling further behind academically, though enrolling in greater numbers.
David E. Hardy and Stephen G. Katsinas, professors at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa's College of Education, conducted research on the production of STEM graduates in community colleges of different sizes and geographic locations — as defined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education . Their findings are among a handful of articles published in the journal’s newest volume that focus on teaching STEM at two-year institutions.
During the two-decade period from 1985-1986 to 2005-2006, rural community colleges increased the number of women and minority STEM graduates by more than 42 percent. By contrast, urban community colleges boosted these underrepresented groups by just under 24 percent and suburban community colleges by about 10 percent.
Breaking down degree production within specific STEM disciplines and then by type of community colleges reveals even more variance. Rural community colleges, for example, bolstered their numbers of female engineering technology graduates by more than 37 percent during the two-decade period, while that figure fell by nearly 19 and 17 percent at suburban and urban community colleges, respectively. Rural institutions also reported gains in the number of female science technology graduates while their counterparts did not.
Urban institutions outpaced rural and suburban institutions in awarding women physical science degrees during the 20-year period. Suburban institutions reported the most improvement in producing female mathematics and statistics graduates, with a nearly 94 percent increase.
Hardy and Katsinas argue that these data evidence a demonstrable “difference in curricular focus” at rural community colleges. Otherwise, their logic continues, suburban and urban community colleges would have posted similar STEM growth for women and minorities over the same time period.
Variation within production of specific STEM fields at these different types of two-year institutions, however, is harder to explain.
“Why are suburban colleges currently involving greater percentages of women in their engineering and physical science programs, while rural colleges appear to do better with female participation in mathematics and statistics, and urban colleges seem to have the advantage in engineering technology, biological/biomedical sciences, and science technology?” write Hardy and Katsinas. “Might there be a connection between the mathematics programs and the need for K–12 math teachers in rural areas; between biomedical and engineering technology programs and the higher likelihood of securing internships, cooperative education experiences, and eventual related employment in urban centers with more medical and manufacturing facilities; or between engineering and physical science programs at suburban colleges and the kind of proactive academic advising and math/science enrichment programs that are generally more available to high school students — both girls and boys — at suburban high schools?”
Aside from calling for more research on the topic to help bring these improvements to scale so all kinds of community colleges can see large gains, Hardy and Katsinas suggest that initiatives to increase STEM degree production in the future should focus on bringing up the bar for all. They note, for instance, the increase in the number of female STEM graduates from community colleges that they document was “certainly more than offset” by a substantial decrease in the share of STEM degrees at community colleges going to men.
“It may well be that the programs that NSF and others have targeted for women and other underrepresented populations in recent years should expand their focus to include populations that are better represented in higher education as a whole,” write Hardy and Katsinas. “It is obvious that even these traditional students are making choices to avoid — or, alternatively, are simply not prepared to succeed in — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at a time when we clearly need young people to step into the STEM workforce. In fact, it may be time to dust off the concept of comprehensive (i.e., universal) funding for particular curricular initiatives represented by those old Perkins-funded gender-equity 'set-aside' programs that we developed at America’s community colleges in the 1980s and early 1990s, rather than to simply continue to make limited funding available through competitive grant programs. Such programs could be recalibrated ‘STEM equity’ programs, and provide the necessary funding to support all community colleges in improving participation in STEM education across the boards, just as the old Perkins funding model allowed them to do in the past.”
Also in the latest issue of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, a group of researchers from Iowa State University’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program make an additional series of recommendation to ease the pathway in STEM fields from community colleges to four-year universities.
Though there is a disconnect for many STEM students between two- and four-year institutions — given the fact that many must retake major-level classes upon transfer and therefore may switch to another concentration or drop out — Frankie Santos Laanan, Iowa State education professor and co-author of another journal article, argued that transfer is especially difficult for the small numbers of women and minorities who make it that far.
“When they transfer onward, do they stay in STEM? What happens to women, who are high performers on one end, when they get to the next level?” Laanan said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “That’s what we need to focus on. But, in general, the transfer function should be seamless and productive for all students.”