Interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) credentials continues to grow among high school graudates who plan to attend a 2-year or 4-year institution (National Science Board, 2014; National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).1 At the same time, calls for improvements to undergraduate STEM education persist in part because the 6-year completion rates for STEM degrees remain around 40 percent (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012): this is noticeably lower than the rate of 56 percent among all students who first enrolled in 2007 in all types of 2-year and 4-year institutions (Shapiro et al., 2013). It is important to consider whether students interested in earning a STEM degree leave STEM for reasons related to how STEM is taught or the nature of the learning environments, in contrast to leaving STEM because they discover a different course of study that is a better match for their interests and abilities.
A recent report to the President, Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012), cited the need to develop an adequate base of talent in STEM fields to ensure the economic strength, national security, global competitiveness, environment, and health of the United States. Industry and business leaders also have expressed concern about having adequate
1 In this report, we use the term “institution” to refer to colleges and universities. We refer to 2-year institutions and community colleges interchangeably even though some community colleges grant 4-year degrees.
numbers of STEM graduates at the baccalaureate and associate levels. At the same time, a number of researchers have examined trends in the data and come to conflicting conclusions regarding whether there is or will be a shortage of graduates with STEM degrees (see, e.g., Carnevale et al., 2011; Rothwell, 2013; Salzman, 2013). Some analysts estimate a shortfall of STEM graduates in the next 10 years (Carnevale et al., 2011), while others suggest a surplus of STEM graduates over the same period of time (Salzman, 2013). Different conclusions seem to arise due to disagreements about a number of fundamental assumptions. For example, there is not agreement about what jobs should be included as part of the STEM workforce. Research on the current and future STEM workforce continues to attempt to resolve these contradictions among economic and workforce forecasts.
The heightened attention to workforce predictions has focused most of the attention on undergraduate STEM education reform on the question of workforce demand, rather than on whether institutions are providing students with a high-quality education and the supports they need to complete a STEM credential.2 Our task was different: we do not consider questions of shortage, adequacy, or surfeit. Rather, as directed by the statement of task for the study (see Box 1-1), our work centered on the barriers and opportunities that students encounter along the increasingly diverse pathways to earning a STEM credential at a 2-year or 4-year institution. We thus have focused on research that investigates the roles that people, processes, and institutions play in 2-year and 4-year STEM credential production. We have done so with the view that all undergraduate students interested in a STEM credential should be
- enabled to make an informed decision about whether a STEM credential is the right choice for them;3
- afforded the opportunity to earn the credential they seek with a minimum of obstacles; and
- supported by faculty, advisers, mentors, and institutional policies rather than being or perceiving themselves as being pushed out of STEM majors or having to overcome what they perceive as insurmountable obstacles.
2 A “credential” is any degree or certification that can be earned by a student at 2-year or 4-year institutions.
3 By this, we mean to stress that it should be expected that some students who initially seek a STEM degree will choose a different discipline to major in because they find that they do not like the STEM discipline they were originally interested in or they find an alternate discipline that is a better match for their interests and abilities. Such choices should be viewed as a positive outcome, because it is part of the natural process of exploration and discovery in college. On the other hand, it would be a major concern if students choose a non-STEM major because they have negative experiences in STEM programs for which they are otherwise a good match.
This report gives special attention to factors that influence diverse students’ (e.g., by race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic factors) decisions to enter into, stay, or leave majors in STEM fields. We explore factors inclusive of and beyond the quality of instruction, such as grading policies, course sequences, undergraduate learning environments, student supports, co-curricular activities, students’ general self-efficacy and self-efficacy in science, family background, and governmental and institutional policies that affect STEM educational pathways. The report explores the role of motivation, interest, and attitude in shaping undergraduates’ trajectories in STEM, especially in the transition from 2-year to 4-year institutions.
This study builds on previous work of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, including the reports Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Education Landscape (National Research Council and National Academy of Engineering, 2012), Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads (National Research Council, 2011), Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Mathematics (National Research Council, 2012), The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century (National Academy of Engineering, 2004), and Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering (National Academy of Engineering, 2008).
Any thoughtful discussion of STEM education requires a working definition of what constitutes STEM disciplines. While STEM is a term commonly used, an enduring question for policy makers, advocates, researchers, and this committee is what fields of study and practice are in-
cluded in STEM. Despite legal definitions and the policies based on them, there still is little consensus as to which fields and courses of study should fall within STEM.
STEM has been previously defined by the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council (2009, p. 17):
- Science is the study of the natural world, human behavior, interaction, and social and economic systems. It includes studies of the laws of nature associated with physics, chemistry, and biology and the treatment or application of facts, principles, concepts, or conventions associated with these disciplines.
- Technology comprises the entire system of people and organizations, knowledge, processes, and devices that go into creating and operating technological artifacts, as well as the artifacts themselves.
- Engineering is both a body of knowledge—about the design and creation of human-made products—and a process for solving problems. This process is design under constraint. One constraint in engineering design is the laws of nature, or science. Other constraints include factors such as time, money, available materials, ergonomics, environmental regulations, manufacturability, and reparability. Engineering utilizes concepts in science and mathematics as well as technological tools.
- Mathematics is the study of patterns and relationships among quantities, numbers, and shapes. Mathematics includes theoretical mathematics and applied mathematics.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) also delineates the STEM fields as physical, biological, earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences; mathematics, statistics, and computer sciences; social, behavioral, and economic sciences; and all areas of engineering and technology. In an examination of the research on STEM education, which covers an array of disciplines, the committee found that only some researchers used the NSF definition, while many studies did not include social and behavioral sciences. Inconsistencies in the definition of STEM can make it difficult to reconcile findings across studies. For this reason, throughout this report we note which fields are included in the STEM education research summarized.
Given that the focus of this report is to identify the barriers and opportunities to earning STEM degrees, we focused our review on STEM fields where attrition is most pronounced, particularly among underrepresented groups; is caused by similar barriers or factors (e.g., level of mathematics preparation and proficiency, departmental and classroom culture, course sequencing, and cost); and can be attenuated by similar interventions or systemic changes.
The committee identified some barriers and opportunities in completing a STEM degree that are common across STEM disciplines, and we found that some barriers and opportunities differ across them. Where relevant, we discuss the differences among STEM fields.
A frequent metaphor used to describe the movement of students toward STEM degrees is that of a pipeline, the implication being that they are on the road to a degree unless or until they “leak out.” This metaphor does not begin to capture the complex ways that today’s students use colleges and universities to complete their degrees. This report provides new ways of both envisioning and planning for the routes and strategies (or lack thereof) in and across institutions of higher education that today’s students use in pursuit of STEM degrees.
In 2010, nearly 40 percent of entering students at 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions indicated an intention to major in STEM; an increase from 2007, when about 33 percent indicated the intention to major in STEM (National Science Board, 2014). Overall, numbers of STEM credentials are increasing for almost every STEM discipline. At the same time, about one-half of students with the intention to earn a STEM bachelor’s degree and more than two–thirds of those intending to earn a STEM associate’s degree fail to earn these degrees within 6 or 4 years, respectively (Eagan et al., 2014; Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014). In addition, many students who do complete credentials take longer than the advertised length of the programs (Eagan et al., 2014; Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014), for example, students aspiring to a B.S. in biology enter this course of study expecting to graduate in 4 years, based on the information provided to them by institutions and biology departments. The extended time to degree results in higher costs that students and their families may not have anticipated.
Understanding students’ trajectories to STEM degrees and what causes them to stay or leave requires answers to a number of questions. Are the STEM educational pathways any less efficient than those for other fields of study? Are they more efficient for some students than for others? If so, what constitutes and contributes to effective patterns? At what points do losses occur? How might the losses be minimized and greater efficiencies realized? These questions are at the heart of the committee’s study.
A better understanding of the current “system” of STEM degrees in 2-year and 4-year institutions has important implications for national education policy and planning. Efforts being undertaken by federal- and state-level agencies and departments and by private funders of higher education need to be informed by the best possible data and analysis about what works where, for whom, and under what circumstances. Much of the data
that could help address these national priorities in education and workforce remain either uncollected, collected in idiosyncratic formats that make analyses difficult or impossible, or are mired in regulations that are rightly designed to protect student privacy but that hamper informed decision making at all levels of the education system. For example, it is difficult to track part-time students and students who transfer among institutions: both kinds of students are growing proportions of the overall undergraduate student population.
In order to tell this complex story, we have organized the report and our findings around the concept of pathways. In Chapter 2, we describe several broad pathways based on whether students first enroll in a 2-year or 4-year institution. We describe the pathways that community college students take when seeking to earn an associate’s degree, to transfer to a 4-year institution (mostly, science and engineering majors), or to earn a certificate (mostly, technician majors). We also trace the pathways that students who first enroll at a 4-year institution take to earn a STEM degree, including whether they initially enter a STEM degree program or choose a STEM program later, and how students move across institutions. Those moves cover many combinations: transferring from a 2-year to a 4-year institution, reverse transferring from a 4-year to a 2-year institution, transferring between 2-year institutions, transferring between 4-year institutions, as well as combinations of attendance at multiple institutions.
We review what happens to those who do not complete the journey. We assess where students encounter barriers and how the barriers affect their education pathways. We describe the major changes in student demographics; how students view, value, and use programs of higher education; and how institutions can adapt to support successful student outcomes. In doing so, we question whether the definitions and characteristics of what constitutes success in STEM should change. As we explore these issues, we identify where further research is needed to build a system that works for all students who aspire to STEM credentials.
The questions and issues that we cover in this report are not all specific to STEM education. Some of the barriers and opportunities that we explore occur across all of undergraduate education. Thus, we draw from research from undergraduate education in general, as well as from STEM-specific education when possible. We also point out where trends or findings are applicable to both STEM and non-STEM pathways and which are unique to STEM.
Who are today’s undergraduate students who aspire to earn STEM degrees? How do they compare with undergraduates more generally? What
is known about those who switch out of STEM programs, those who are “undecided,” or those who enter STEM after having first selected a different field of study, and those who leave higher education without completing any degree? Beyond interest and motivation, what prior preparation do STEM majors bring with them to college? What is it about their backgrounds and the culture and mission of the academic departments and institutions they enter that contribute to the current outcomes? Are some types of institutions and academic programs more or less successful in producing STEM graduates for different groups of students?
Answering these questions means probing deeply into the patterns of study for different groups of students. It also means throwing aside some of the misconceptions that persist about who is a STEM student. Historically, the conception of STEM undergraduates has been students fresh out of high school who enter a 4-year college and complete degrees in 4 years: this pattern has so changed that such students are less than half of the undergraduate population (Eagan et al., 2014; Salzman and Van Noy, 2014).
Undergraduate students pursue degrees in a wide range of types of institutions: research universities, comprehensive universities, and 2-year and 4-year colleges, as well as for-profit institutions. Community colleges play an increasingly important role in the national higher education system, including in STEM education (Mooney and Foley, 2011). In 2011, nearly half of all students at the undergraduate level attended 2-year colleges: the 7.5 million students in 2-year colleges were 42 percent of all undergraduates (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). Associate’s degrees comprised 33 percent of all undergraduate degrees awarded in 2008–2009 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).
The propensity to enroll in different types of institutions varies for different groups of students (Kena et al., 2014). Minority, first-generation, and low-income students disproportionately attend 2-year institutions. Fifty-seven percent of all black undergraduate students and 60 percent of all Hispanic undergraduate students attended community colleges in 2011–2012, compared with 41 percent of white and Asian/Pacific Islander undergraduate students (Witham et al., 2015). Students from families whose income is in the bottom or third quartile are 50 percent of the student body at 2-year institutions, but only 14–34 percent of the student body at competitive 4-year institutions (Witham et al., 2015). Enrollment patterns also differ by parental education level: 48 percent of undergraduate students whose parents did not complete high school attend a community college, 42 percent of students whose parents completed high school attend a community college, and 34 percent of students whose parents completed college attend a community college (Witham et al., 2015).
The most commonly used assessment of success in undergraduate education, the graduation rate,4 is a popular metric for a number of reasons. Institutions, students, and policy makers like them because they perceive them to be aligned with the primary goal of most college students (Bailey and Xu, 2012). In addition, completion and progression data are widely available and can be more easily collected in a consistent manner than other outcomes, such as wages or employment.
Critics have pointed out, however, that graduation rates on their own are a flawed metric of success because they are influenced by factors beyond the control of an institution. Graduation rates also are influenced by the characteristics of the students who are accepted at each institution. Thus, highly selective institutions would be expected to have higher graduation rates than institutions that are less selective. In addition, a degree is not the ultimate goal of all college students, especially among students at 2-year institutions: they may also seek to transfer to 4-year institutions without earning a degree, to earn a certificate, or to learn job-related skills. Thus, graduation rates provide some indication of the success of an undergraduate STEM program, but this information is difficult to interpret without information regarding student preparation, student goals, and institutional context.
An even broader vision of success has been emerging from definitions of success developed by various stakeholder groups, including the American Association of Community Colleges, the Aspen Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Governors Association. These visions shift the focus to a broader set of academic indicators, such as success in remedial and first-year courses, course completion, credit accumulation, time to degree, retention and transfer rates, degrees awarded, student diversity, and learning outcomes. However, there are as yet no systemic, national data sources on such factors.
Specific frameworks for success have recently been developed by a number of groups. These frameworks include both academic indicators and factors associated with the quality of STEM education. For example, the Association of American Universities (AAU) framework for success in undergraduate STEM education focuses on improving undergraduate STEM instruction and the culture of the learning environments.5 The framework includes three factors that need to be addressed together: pedagogy, scaffolding, and cultural change. Pedagogy includes aligning faculty incentives with high-quality instructional practices, leadership commitment
4 Degree completion at 4-year institutions is typically based on a 6-year time frame, and a 4-year time frame is used for degrees and certifications at 2-year institutions.
to improved pedagogy, and assessing teaching practices. Under scaffolding, the AAU framework focuses on improved facilities, integrating technology into classroom instruction, faculty professional development, and the use of data for continuous improvement. Culture change includes ensuring expanded access, articulated learning goals, leadership commitment to change, establishing metrics of effective teaching practices, and the alignment of incentives with high-quality teaching practices. AAU is working on collecting data on these factors.
Some people in the field have also begun to include interpersonal and psychological factors as components of student success. Schreiner and colleagues (2010) have begun to focus on three key areas that contribute to student success and persistence: academic engagement and determination, interpersonal relationships, and psychological well-being. They identify thriving as a desirable goal for students, by which they mean more than surviving and graduating. Thriving means that students are engaged in the learning process, investing effort to reach important educational goals, managing their time and commitments effectively, connected in healthy ways to other people, optimistic about their future, positive about their present choices, appreciative of differences in others, and committed to making a contribution to their community (Schreiner et al., 2009).
As we approached our charge, we took the view that success is achieved when all students who are interested in STEM majors
- are able to make informed decisions about the best course of study for them based on interests, motivation, and career aspirations;
- understand the variety of potential career pathways that come with STEM degrees;
- have a clear understanding of STEM content and practices;
- do not face unreasonable barriers along their pathways that discourage them or make progress impossible; and
- are aware of connections between STEM and societal issues and concerns.
This study was designed to describe the status of knowledge about the barriers faced by students with an interest in earning a STEM degree or certificate and the opportunities and strategies to remove these barriers (see the statement of task in Box 1-1). The report includes an in-depth analysis of the students who seek STEM degrees, the pathways taken to STEM degrees, the barriers to earning STEM degrees, programs and policies that support the completion of STEM degrees, and the systemic reforms needed to improve undergraduate STEM education for all students.
With support from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and NSF, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine established the Committee on Barriers and Opportunities in Completing 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees to undertake this study. Selected to reflect a diversity of perspectives and a broad range of expertise, the 18 committee members included experts in the sociology of education; the current STEM workforce; higher education policy, practice, and administration; data collection methodologies; longitudinal and career research; educational and career counseling; STEM education reform; and advanced technical education. In addition, the committee included balanced representation across the range of state-supported and private universities and colleges, special-focus institutions, and 2-year colleges (see the biographical sketches of members in Appendix B).
In addressing the statement of task (Box 1-1), the committee focused its attention on students who aspire to earn a STEM credential, with the understanding that students in other fields also take STEM courses. For example, introductory STEM courses are required as part of general education credit requirements for students who aspire to a degree in many non-STEM fields (e.g., health sciences, humanities) at the vast majority of 2-year and 4-year institutions. We anticipate that the changes recommended in this report could lead to positive effects for a much larger pool of students than are the primary focus of this study.
The committee conducted its work through an iterative process of gathering information, deliberating on it, identifying gaps and questions, gathering further information to fill these gaps, and holding further discussions or seeking expert guidance. In our search for relevant information, we held three public fact-finding meetings and reviewed published and unpublished research reports and evaluations. We also commissioned seven white papers on a wide range of topics:
- Regulations and policies affecting the transfer of credit between 2-year and 4-year institutions, by Ken O’Donnell.
- Co-curricular supports for underrepresented students seeking a STEM degree, by Mica Estrada.
- Pathways to a STEM degree among students who begin college at a 4-year institution, by Kevin Eagan, Tanya Figueroa, Brice Hughes, and Sylvia Hurtado.
- Contributions of community colleges to undergraduate STEM education and workforce development, by Michelle Van Noy and Matthew Zeidenberg.
- Contributions of for-profit institutions to undergraduate STEM education and workforce development, by Kevin Kinser.
- The effect of mathematics education on the trajectories of STEM students, by David Bressoud.
- STEM student pathways from 4-year institutions and 2-year institutions, by Hal Salzman and Michelle Van Noy.6
The committee as a whole met in person four times. At the first meeting, the committee discussed the charge with representatives from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and NSF. The meeting also included presentations from experts on issues related to student completion and persistence in STEM majors; creating and implementing changes to improve student outcomes; discipline-specific barriers, opportunities, and reform efforts; and serving underrepresented groups at 2-year and 4-year institutions.
During its second meeting, the committee heard expert testimony on the state of reform efforts in mathematics education; the cost and price of STEM degrees; the importance of and barriers to authentic STEM experiences for students;7 and the value of taking a systems approach to improving undergraduate STEM education. Both meetings included private discussion among the committee members, which allowed them the opportunity to debate the relevance of the findings presented.
The third committee meeting was structured as a public workshop on undergraduate STEM education. The workshop included two panel discussions on the goals and processes for reforming undergraduate STEM education. The first panel included representatives from foundations and industries, and the second panel included representatives from national associations. The meeting also included expert presentations on and discussions of student persistence in STEM degrees at different types of institutions (2-year, 4-year, public, private, nonprofit, for-profit, etc.); cultural barriers within STEM departments and classrooms; co-curricular supports; models of transfer and articulation agreements/systems; and sustaining systemic change. Prior to the start of the workshop, the committee met for half a day to discuss the report outline and potential conclusion and recommendation topics.
At the fourth committee meeting, we intensely analyzed the relevant evidence that had been uncovered and discussed our conclusions. We were particularly focused on identifying bodies of research that are characterized by systematic collection and interpretation of evidence and exploring the ways in which these research literatures connect to each other.
The report takes a student-focused approach to identifying the barriers and opportunities to earning 2-year and 4-year undergraduate STEM
6 The public meeting agendas and white papers are available at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/CurrentProjects/DBASSE_080405 [April 2016].
7 See p. 90 for definition of and discussion of authentic STEM experiences.
degrees or certifications, and this theme is reflected in all chapters of the report. In Chapter 2, we describe the pathways students take to earn STEM degrees. The chapter also provides a detailed look at who STEM degree seekers are, what institutions they attend, and how they navigate the undergraduate STEM education pathways. Differences in student pathways, majors, and institution type are highlighted throughout. Chapter 3 describes the effect of the culture of STEM departments and classrooms on students interested in a STEM credential. Chapter 4 provides a synopsis of instructional, departmental-level, and institutional-level barriers to STEM degrees and certifications. In addition, we review the effects of the range of interventions developed to improve student outcomes.
In Chapter 5, we review the system-level and policy barriers and the steps that can be taken to remove them. In Chapter 6, we describe how to create systemic and lasting change. The final chapter contains our conclusions about the barriers and opportunities for 2-year and 4-year undergraduate STEM education and presents our recommendations to faculty, STEM departments, colleges and universities, professional societies, higher education organizations, state governments, and the federal government to improve STEM education for all students interested in STEM degrees.
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Carnavale, A., Smith, N., and Melton, M. (2011). STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Available: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED525297.pdf [April 2015].
Eagan, K., Hurtado, H, Figueroa, T., and Hughes, B. (2014). Examining STEM Pathways among Students Who Begin College at Four-Year Institutions. Commissioned paper prepared for the Committee on Barriers and Opportunities in Completing 2- and 4-Year STEM Degrees, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC. Available: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_088834.pdf [April 2015].
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