Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Persistence in Science of High-Ability Minority Students: Results of a Longitudinal Study

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Persistence in Science of High-Ability Minority Students: Results of a Longitudinal Study

Article excerpt

Results of a Longitudinal Study


Concern over the underrepresentation of minorities in natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering (S/E) led to this longitudinal study of high-ability minority students. Although there is presently no shortage of scientists or engineers in the United States, failure to support talented minority students is a disservice to those students. Capable minorities deserve equal access to S/E professions, and our entire society benefits when minorities can serve as role models for younger members of their racial/ethnic groups.

The study was restricted to students with relatively high math test scores because, it was assumed, most low-scoring students would lack the fundamental skills required of science students, and the bulk of the sample would either fail to enroll in college or would drop out or change majors during the first year. More important to the study were students who were judged to be academically capable of becoming scientists or engineers but who for some reason chose to abandon their fields before graduating from college. Identifying the reasons why academically capable minorities either persist or leave S/E was the focus of the study. Furthermore, a comprehensive model was developed to estimate the relative importance of each factor on persistence.

NAEP survey data show that from the fourth grade through the twelfth grade the percentage of Black children is as high as the percentage of White or Hispanic children who enjoy mathematics (National Center for Education Statistics, 1991). Furthermore, admissions credentials (such as SAT and GRE scores) of minorities (especially Blacks) have been increasing in recent years. Nevertheless, the number who actually earn bachelor's degrees in S/E and the number who attend graduate school are still exceedingly small.

Between 1977 and 1993 the percentage of S/E bachelor's degrees awarded to African Americans remained essentially unchanged at 6%, and the percentage of PhDs in S/E awarded to African Americans remained at less than 2% during that period (National Science Board, 1996). Just to illustrate how small the numbers are, only 52 Black U.S. citizens earned PhDs in physical sciences in 1994 (Simmons & Thurgood, 1995). The 1990 American Chemical Society Salary Survey revealed that African American chemists represented less than 2% of their membership (E. Smith, 1991); the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) reported that in 1990 only 1% of their members were Black (IEEE, 1991).

A considerable body of prior research suggests that parents' education has little, if any, direct effect on success in S/E (e.g., Kohen, Nertel, & Kamas, 1978; Mow & Nettles, 1990; Tinto, 1987). More important are the math/science skills students acquire in elementary and secondary school - skills that provide an essential foundation for their collegiate studies.

In addition to academic preparation, the literature supports the importance of noncognitive variables in academic success. Tracey and Sedlacek (1984, 1985, & 1987) have found repeatedly that noncognitive factors, such as self-concept and an understanding of racism and an ability to cope with it, play more critical roles in persistence than do cognitive factors. Racism has been found to be one of the primary explanatory variables accounting for differences in the academic performance of White and minority students (Loo & Rolison, 1986; Suen, 1983). Discrimination impedes both the cognitive and affective development of minority students (Fleming, 1984; Hurtado, 1992 & 1994) and results in the students' isolation from faculty, other students, and campus organizations (Smedley, Myers, & Harrell, 1993; Smith, 1989 & 1992). Nora and Cabrera (1996) found that perceptions of prejudice-discrimination negatively affected minority students' cognitive and affective development.

At the time students are exploring courses and careers in S/E, they are involved in a variety of activities and may be considering other fields of endeavor. …

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