By the Numbers: Why Are Participation and Completion Rates in STEM Majors So Low among Underrepresented Minorities?

By Abdul-Alim, Jamaal | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

By the Numbers: Why Are Participation and Completion Rates in STEM Majors So Low among Underrepresented Minorities?


Abdul-Alim, Jamaal, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Whenever Tamara L. Battle taught middle and high school students as a member of the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program--or GK-12--she made it a point to talk about her previous struggles in math and science.

"I always tell students what my background is to let them know that I know what I'm talking about," says Battle, who served as a GK-12 fellow at the Cesar Chavez Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., from 2006 to 2008.

"But I always tell this story about me failing my first physics class [in college], and now I'm teaching [physics]," Battle says of the time when she earned an F in physics at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the 1990s.

Battle says the idea behind sharing her personal story was to help students at the mostly African-American and Hispanic school overcome the fear of failure in what is often unfamiliar terrain.

"I try to reduce the fear ... because I know sometimes as minority students, that has already been infused at an early age," says Battle, who now helps manage the GK-12 program as a science assistant within the Division of Graduate Education at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Battle's perspective echoes a plethora of emerging reports that have been probing the reasons behind disparate participation and completion rates in STEM majors among underrepresented minorities.

"This apprehension may, at worst, create barriers to entry or, at a minimum, create barriers to the information needed to be fully successful," states a 2011 landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences rifled Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: Americas Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.

Experts say one of the most effective ways to turn things around is to provide coursework in middle and high school to give students a sense of what STEM courses entail at the college level.

"A lot has to do with not just coming to college without the science and math skills used in those fields, but also just exposure in middle and high school to the coursework that would prepare one for advanced-level math and science," explains Dr. Terrell Lamont Strayhorn, an associate professor of higher education at the Ohio State University, where he also serves as a faculty research associate in the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity.

Peter Arcidiacono, an economics professor at Duke University who has studied STEM degree completion rates, cited the need for a better sense of the workload involved with STEM majors.

"Students--both minority and not--don't know that the sciences require more study time on average and give out lower grades," says Arcidiacono. "Hence, many students start out in the sciences, both minority and not, but switch out.

"Those with worse preparation switch out at higher rates regardless of race," Arcidiacono adds.

Uneven growth

Despite varying degrees of progress in recent years, STEM degree completion rates along racial and ethnic lines remain stubbornly askew.

For instance, although Black and Hispanic students experienced 3.7 and 27.7 percent growth, respectively, in STEM degrees awarded between the 2000-01 and 2008-09 academic years, Black and Hispanic students represented just 7.5 and 7 percent, respectively, of all STEM degree awards in the 2008-09 academic year, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report, titled Postsecondary Awards in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, by State: 2001 and 2009. Those figures are disproportionately lower than each group's percentage of the U.S. population in 2010,which was 12.6 and 16.3, respectively.

A 2010 research brief by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, titled "Degrees of Success: Bachelor's Degree Completion Rates among Initial STEM Majors," also found major differences in STEM degree completion rates. …

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