Introductory courses disproportionately drive out underrepresented minority students from STEM fields

A new study reveals that introductory courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which are critical gateways to STEM degrees and careers, may be exacerbating existing disparities in STEM fields, Inside Higher Ed reports. Some in higher education have historically perceived these types of courses as a necessary “gatekeeper,” eliminating students who might struggle to complete a STEM degree. However, researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Williams College have found that the approach is disproportionately detrimental to underrepresented minority (URM) students.

Related: How can STEM programs attract, graduate more Black students? >

After examining the records of 109,070 students at six large, public, research-intensive universities, researchers calculated the probabilities of STEM degree attainment for various demographics. They found that a white male student with average academic preparation who receives C or better in all introductory courses has a 48% chance of getting a STEM degree, compared to 35% for an otherwise similar female URM student, even after controlling for other variables such as academic preparation in high school and students’ intent to study STEM, the study shows.

If these students receive a grade lower than a C in even one introductory STEM course, their chances of graduating with a STEM degree drop to 33% and 21%, respectively. The sample included high school grade point average and ACT composite scores for STEM-intending undergraduates who started college from 2005 to 2012.

Related: New Georgetown program takes inclusive, integrative approach to biomedical sciences >

Changing the system

While some efforts to diversify the sciences have focused on “fixing students” who have perceived deficits in academic preparation or interest in STEM, the approach has not yet reduced attrition among URM students in STEM fields, the researchers point out. A more effective approach, they say, would be to re-examine, redesign, and rebuild introductory STEM courses, departments in the natural and applied sciences, and university policies and cultures with a focus on increasing inclusion and supporting student success.

Related: Prioritize inclusive teaching to enhance learning, professors say >

“The lower STEM degree attainment rates of URM students shouldn’t be blamed on those students’ level of preparedness,” co-author Chad Topaz, professor of complex systems at Williams College and co-founder of the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, tells Inside Higher Ed. “Simply put, the system treats a URM student differently than an otherwise-comparable white student, so the system needs to be changed.”


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