Black and Latine students more likely to leave STEM programs, study finds

Although college students of color pursue degrees in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—at rates similar to those of their white peers, Black and Latine students are more likely to leave STEM majors early, according to a new study. Published in the journal Education Researcher, the study analyzes federal data on 5,600 students who started their college studies in 2003-04 and enrolled at or transfered to four-year institutions.

The researchers found that while similar percentages—about one in five—of white, Black, and Latine students declared as STEM majors, retention varied. About 37 percent of Latine and 40 percent of Black students ended up switching majors, compared with 29 percent of white students. Latine and Black STEM students also had higher drop-out rates—at 20 percent and 26 percent, respectively—than white STEM students, 13 percent of whom dropped out.

What’s driving disparities in STEM degree completion?

The disparity appears to be STEM-specific. The researchers analyzed other competitive fields, finding, for instance, that students of color pursuing business degrees were not more likely to switch majors than their white peers. “If there’s demonstrated, strong interest in STEM among black and Latino youth, why would you see higher departure rates for these students?” Catherine Riegle-Crumb, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin said to The Washington Post. “It’s not about interest or academic ability. So what causes this?”

While the study does not try to explain why students of color are abandoning STEM fields, the study authors suggested several factors, including discrimination and bias in science and technology, structures that assume a certain level of college preparedness, and a lack of mentors from underrepresented groups.

Commenting on the study, Darryl Dickerson, associate director of the minority engineering program at Purdue University and president of the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates, called on colleges and universities to focus on “how they add to the exclusion [STEM students of color] feel” and to develop support systems that address those gaps.


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