career choices than high school diploma recipients do (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl, 2010). Increasing STEM degree completion in the United States has been identified as an issue of national priority to boost global competitiveness (National Governors Association, 2011). The United States does not sufficiently tap the talents of the nationâ€™s students as evidenced by the underrepresentation of women, racial-ethnic minority, low-income, first-generation, and nontraditional-aged college students in many fouryear STEM degree programs (Bailey and Alfonso, 2005; Espinosa, 2011; National Science Foundation, 2007), and the high percentage of international students in U.S. graduate STEM programs (National Science Board, 2008).
Yet, this is where challenge and opportunity meet. Community colleges attract students from all backgrounds, especially those underrepresented in STEM, by the hundreds of thousands. Indeed the community college is the most typical entry point into higher education today, representing about 50 percent of college students (Bailey and Alfonso, 2005; Engle and Tinto, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2006). However, community college pathways to four-year degrees are not as effective as they could be. Each year, over four billion dollars in grants and state allocations are lost when new, full-time community college students do not return for a second year of study (American Institutes for Research, 2011). Transfer rates from community college to four-year institutions are low overall, especially for low-income students of color (Bailey and Alfonso, 2005; Engle and Tinto, 2008; Packard et al., 2011; Reyes, 2011). In addition, few women pursue a STEM transfer pathway (Packard et al., 2011; Reyes, 2011). In order to strengthen pathways to a four-year degree for students from diverse backgrounds, it is critical to identify effective outreach and recruitment strategies to attract students as well as mentoring strategies to mitigate barriers and improve retention. Further, we need to identify levers of change to expand these practices across the nation.
CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: THE FEASIBILITY OF STEM WITH A COMPLEX SOCIAL ECOLOGY
Students develop their college and career plans within a complex social ecology. Bronfenbrennerâ€™s ecological model helps us understand the influence of interconnected contexts on studentsâ€™ learning and career trajectories (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Students develop within many spaces including the home, school, and workplace. The relationships among contexts also influence students, such as how strongly parents and teachers communicate. Indirect influencers, including access to transportation or availability of jobs, also persuade students, as do the broader political or