Modeling Entrance into STEM Fields of Study Among Students Beginning at Community Colleges and Four-Year Institutions

Issue/Topic: STEM; Postsecondary Participation--Access/Outreach; Postsecondary Success--Completion
Author(s): Wang, Xueli
Organization(s): University of Wisconsin-Madison
Publication: Research in Higher Education
Published On: 2013

Strengthening the educational pipeline for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has been a key preoccupation for researchers and policymakers. Despite the pressing need for STEM workers, student aspiration to enter these fields has declined. This study explores the effects of where students start their postsecondary education on the likelihood that they enter STEM-related majors.

To examine the factors that shape students' decision to pursue STEM fields; to identify effective points of intervention pathways to and through STEM majors.

  • While math self-efficacy and exposure to advanced math and science courses in high school were significant predictors of STEM interest for all college students, the effect for community college students was much lower than for their university peers.
  • Student perceptions of readiness in science had a positive effect on STEM entrance at four-year institutions but no significant impact at community colleges. Perceptions of math readiness had no meaningful impact on STEM entrance in either postsecondary sector.
  • Interest in STEM careers is the most prominent force behind the actual choice of entering a STEM program of study, even when considering differing levels of self-efficacy, academic preparation, and demographic factors.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
  • Considering that community college bound students are disproportionally drawn from nonwhite, first-generation, and academically disadvantaged backgrounds, it is important to improve math learning, strengthen math self-efficacy beliefs, and introduce these students to more math and science offerings in high school. Technology-assisted approaches can deliver more math and science options in tandem with state curricula.
  • The data provided contrasting results on why community college students do not exhibit the same level of STEM interest as their four-year peers. It is probable that STEM entrance at community colleges is affected by the commuter nature of these institutions, lower student self-efficacy, and information gaps about student supports and programs of study.
  • Nonwhite students aspire to or enter STEM majors at a similar rate to their white peers, but their lower completion rates speak to a systemic issue. While financial aid and socioeconomic factors are less predictive in determining students' STEM aspiration and choice, these dependent variables could be critical to continued retention and degree attainment overall.
  • STEM pathways are not always clear to community college students, because math and science opportunities in the two-year sector often do not communicate or articulate with four-year programs of study. Developing intentional STEM transfer pathways is critical to better serve community college students who will pursue baccalaureate and advanced STEM credentials.
  • Each of these issues (i.e., academic preparation, self-beliefs, and increased exposure to math and science) would benefit from collaboration from secondary and postsecondary leaders, especially in ensuring equal access to STEM education for all students. Doing so could help educators and policymakers understand the complex and nuanced factors that shape community college students' interest in math and science. Cultivating their interest is critical to the future economic growth and competitiveness.

Research Design:
The study uses Albert Bandura's social cognitive career theory and a multi-group structural modeling analysis to evaluate how student academic preparation, self-beliefs, and choice of college impact their intent to enter STEM careers.

The study uses survey data from the first and second follow-up surveys of the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002.

Year data is from:
2004 and 2006


Data Collection and Analysis:
The key dependent variable is the choice to enter or not enter a STEM program of study. Independent variables were divided into a) academic and financial and b) demographic categories. Since the longitudinal data do not include variables related to student motivation and career interests, the study had to rely on a proxy variable: students' self-identified efficacy in mathematics.


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