CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new study by a scholar at the University of Illinois suggests that the U.S. may not be falling as far behind its industrialized peers in educating future generations of scientists as previously thought. Significantly more female and minority college students are majoring in and obtaining degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields than reports have indicated if these disciplines, known by the acronym STEM, are viewed broadly.
Previous studies on differential participation rates in STEM emphasized female and minority underrepresentation by focusing on a single major or a narrow set of high-profile STEM majors such as computer science and engineering.
Broadening the definition of STEM to encompass related disciplines such as the health sciences, the agricultural and biological sciences and psychology – which tend to attract and retain more women and minority students – more accurately reflects the number of college students in science-related degree programs, said Casey E. George-Jackson, a researcher and adjunct faculty member in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, who studied student participation and bachelor’s degree completion rates in STEM fields at five public research universities.
The data that George-Jackson used in the study were collected by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its Public University Database project, which examined trends at U.S. colleges and universities. Public research universities educate about 7.2 million students, or 30 percent of the undergraduate population and confer two-thirds of the degrees awarded in STEM fields.
George-Jackson tracked more than 16,000 freshmen that matriculated to five land-grant universities in fall 1999 and completed bachelor’s degrees within six years, the rates at which students declared STEM majors and their persistence in those disciplines.
“I had access to majors semester by semester instead of having just the major students entered with or graduated with,” George-Jackson said. “I could see movement semester by semester, and that’s important because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to look at the nuanced differences. The data set also gave me the ability to look at the intersection of race and gender.”
If the fields classified as STEM were limited to physical science, computer science, math and engineering, the disciplines commonly defined as STEM in previous studies, 42 percent of men and 11 percent of women in George-Jackson’s study could be classified as STEM majors. However, when using the broader view of STEM fields, the ratios changed significantly – 37 percent of women and 54 percent of men were studying STEM disciplines, George-Jackson found.
Women comprised the majority – 78 percent – of the health science professions majors as well as 60 percent of the agricultural and biological sciences majors, and they were significantly more likely than their male peers to persist and earn degrees in those disciplines.
Despite reports that women drop out of STEM majors at much higher rates than men, George-Jackson found very little gender disparity in the departures – 29 percent of women who began in STEM majors fully departed scientific study and earned degrees in non-STEM disciplines versus 24 percent of men.
George-Jackson also examined the types of majors students transferred into when they departed high-status STEM majors such as computer science and engineering, something that prior studies did not track although the students’ departures were considered “losses” to the future scientific workforce.
More than 54 percent of the women who transferred out of high-status STEM majors obtained degrees in the health sciences professions, while another 13 percent earned degrees in the agricultural and biological sciences, indicating that women who departed high status STEM majors migrated to other scientific disciplines. In other words, they did not abandon science altogether, as reports suggested.
Overall, women tended to change majors earlier in college, with more than 56 percent of women transferring out during their fourth year versus 35 percent of men. The timing of their departures could have implications for intervention programs aimed at retaining underrepresented students, George-Jackson wrote.
“If we look at the women by race/ethnicity, it’s a very different story than if we look at women all together,” George-Jackson said. “The ability to dis-aggregate on multiple levels is very important if we really want to understand what’s going on with these students.”
Asian women were not only significantly more likely to major in physical science, computer science, math or engineering initially, they also were more likely to persist and earn degrees in those disciplines (73 percent) than white women (64 percent), Hispanic women (62 percent) and black women (46 percent).
George-Jackson’s study, titled “STEM Switching: Examining Departures of Undergraduate Women in STEM Fields,” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering and is available online.
At Illinois, George-Jackson teaches a course on higher education access and is the director of STEM Trends in Enrollment and Persistence for Underrepresented Populations, Project STEP-UP, a research project that investigates factors that impact under-represented undergraduate students’ educational outcomes in the STEM fields.