College Student Pathways to the STEM Disciplines

Jan. 01, 2013

Source: Teachers College Record Volume 115, No. 1, January 2013, pages 1-27.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors empirically examine the impact that students’ backgrounds, academic experiences, and attitudes have on their likelihood of selecting a STEM major in college.

Research Questions
The analyses were designed to answer the following these research questions:
1. What individual factors affect students’ likelihood of majoring in a STEM field in college, controlling for differences in the characteristics of institutions attended during high school and college?
2. What institutional factors affect students’ likelihood of majoring in a STEM field in college, controlling for differences in student characteristics?

Research Design
Data were collected through the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative survey of high school sophomores who were followed through high school and into college.

The survey was specifically designed to examine the educational transitions and work experiences of high school students, with survey administrations beginning in 2002 and continuing in 2004 and 2006.

For the purposes of this study, the authors selected students based on the following two criteria:
(1) students who were enrolled at a four-year not-for-profit institution at the time of the second follow-up in 2006, and
(2) students who had declared a major at the time of the second follow-up.


The findings revealed significant effects in relation to race, academic preparation, attitudes and dispositions toward math and science, college choice considerations, and postsecondary experiences.

The authors noted an increased likelihood for Black students to enroll in a STEM discipline vis-à-vis White students.

Additionally, STEM majors were associated with significantly lower SES composite scores compared with non-STEM majors, although SES did not significantly influence the likelihood of majoring in a STEM field.

The results suggest that students who take into consideration the programs offered at a particular school are much more likely to enroll in a STEM discipline.
In examining post-secondary experiences, the authors found continued evidence that postsecondary preparation in mathematics and science coursework is essential in widening the conduit to STEM fields.

This study also indicated that students are more likely to persist in a STEM field if they attend post-secondary institutions that emphasize undergraduate teaching and research rather than graduate education.

Policy Implications

There are a number of policy implications based on the findings from this study.
First, there is a continued need to address STEM preparation as a pipeline issue that involves key stakeholders across all levels of education.

Additionally, business and community leaders remain important stakeholders in developing comprehensive solutions to addressing the shortage of graduates both interested in and equipped with the requisite skills needed in the STEM fields.

In addition to developing and strengthening K–16 partnerships, the findings from this study also support the further development of dual-enrollment programs in high schools.
Both the actual performance and retrospective evaluation of students’ preparation in math and science point to the importance of providing students with opportunities to gain exposure to advanced math and science courses that are aligned with the expectations of college-level courses.

Finally, there are important policy levers related to teachers and counselors.
Teachers remain critical change agents in encouraging and developing future STEM interests among students, and policies are needed to incentivize teachers to expose students to the connections between coursework and occupational choices, as well as the productivity returns based on students’ human capital investments.

Updated: Apr. 28, 2013


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