Why do many of the students who enter higher education with an interest in pursuing study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) lose that interest before degree completion? How can the quality of the educational experience of undergraduate STEM students be improved? Motivated by these questions, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine appointed the Committee on Barriers and Opportunities in Completing 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees to address the barriers that prevent students from earning the STEM degrees to which they aspire and to identify opportunities to promote completion of undergraduate STEM degrees.
The committee approached its review of research on undergraduate STEM education from the viewpoint that all students who are interested in a STEM credential should be enabled to make an informed decision about whether a STEM degree is the right degree choice for them; afforded the opportunity to earn the degrees they seek with a minimum of obstacles; and supported by faculty, advisers, mentors, and institutional policies rather than being or perceiving themselves as being pushed out of STEM majors.
A diverse range of students take varied paths to earn STEM degrees. There are both differences and similarities across disciplines, institution types, and student characteristics. Contrary to the image of a linear route to a bachelor’s degree in STEM (often referred to as the STEM pipeline), we found instead a complex array of pathways to a varied set of undergraduate credential outcomes, both 2-year and 4-year degrees. Students use 2-year and 4-year institutions in ways likely not envisioned by educators and
policy makers, with frequent transfers, concurrent enrollment at multiple institutions, and multiple points of entry, exit, and reentry to the pathways.
Such pathways have major implications for the financing of, the time to, and the cost of degrees. However, existing data systems make it difficult to track students seeking STEM degrees because they focus on first-time, full-time students; such students account for a minority of the undergraduate population. And the diversity of pathways, even for those who may successfully complete STEM degrees, raises serious practical questions about the validity of the accountability metrics being used or proposed for higher education institutions.
The very culture of STEM presents both barriers and opportunities for successful degree completion for all students. The normative culture of STEM can be a barrier for students from underrepresented groups because it often includes views of student ability as inherent or natural, related to one’s genetics, and thus not amenable to improvement. Related to this view is the tendency for introductory mathematics and science courses to be used as “gatekeeper” courses with highly competitive classroom environments that may discourage students who are new to the fields, especially women and those from minority backgrounds.
Institutional, state, and national education policies have not been developed to support the various pathways that students are now taking to earn a STEM degree. Transfer and articulation policies (or the lack of these) often slow students’ progress to degrees, deter students from transferring, and increase the cost of their undergraduate education. In addition, students often pay more for a STEM degree than expected due to tight course sequencing, degree requirements, grading policies, the need for developmental coursework, and the availability of courses. The high cost of providing some STEM degrees and diminishing funding from state and federal sources have led some universities to adopt the practice of charging differential tuition. While research on the effects of differential pricing is limited, existing studies indicate potentially negative effects of this policy on selecting a STEM major, particularly among women and underrepresented minorities.
Some states have adopted performance-based funding formulas, which reward institutions with higher graduation rates. This policy is feared to have the unintended consequence of placing a greater focus on graduation rates rather than either the quality of the degrees offered or on the populations being served, but studies have yet to explore whether these fears are justified. It also has been criticized for failing to recognize the work being done by institutions that are attempting to support STEM degree completion by capable students who come from different profiles—such as those who are academically less well prepared, including many from underrepresented groups. The policy of performance funding may also have had the unintended consequence of limiting the recruitment and enrollment of
students from those groups, who may be deemed at high risk of failure, both generally and in STEM fields.
Some colleges that provide co-curricular support to students (such as peer tutoring, research experiences, and living-learning communities) and have improved instructional strategies have seen improvement in student outcomes. These structures often function outside of the regular operations of the departments. However, an institution-wide or systemic approach to change is most likely to yield meaningful and lasting results.
Overall, it is clear that the STEM pipeline metaphor is not an accurate portrayal of the diverse, complex paths that students take to earn STEM degrees. The prominent practice of undertaking piecemeal reform efforts has typically been shown to be unsuccessful because these efforts do not attend to complex pathways being taken to earn STEM degrees, the challenges the students face along those pathways, and the policy environments in which these challenges are addressed. To address the needs of STEM students, colleges, universities, federal agencies, professional organizations, state and federal policy makers, accrediting agencies, foundations, and STEM departments need to work together, across their individual structures, to create comprehensive and lasting improvements to undergraduate STEM education.
CONCLUSION 1 There is an opportunity to expand and diversify the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce and STEM-skilled workers in all fields if there is a commitment to appropriately support students through degree completion and provide more opportunities to engage in high-quality STEM learning and experiences.
CONCLUSION 2 Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) aspirants increasingly navigate the undergraduate education system in new and complex ways. It takes students longer for completion of degrees, there are many patterns of student mobility within and across institutions, and the accommodation and management of student enrollment patterns can affect how quickly and even whether a student earns a STEM degree.
CONCLUSION 3 National, state, and institutional undergraduate data systems often are not structured to gather information needed to understand how well the undergraduate education system and institutions of higher education are serving students.
CONCLUSION 4 Better alignment of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, instructional practices, and student supports is needed in institutions to meet the needs of the populations they serve. Programming and policies that address the climate of STEM departments and classrooms, the availability of instructional supports and authentic STEM experiences, and the implementation of effective teaching practices together can help students overcome key barriers to earning a STEM degree, including the time to degree and the price of a STEM degree.
CONCLUSION 5 There is no single approach that will improve the educational outcomes of all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) aspirants. The nature of U.S. undergraduate STEM education will require a series of interconnected and evidence-based approaches to create systemic organizational change for student success.
CONCLUSION 6 Improving undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for all students will require a more systemic approach to change that includes use of evidence to support institutional decisions, learning communities and faculty development networks, and partnerships across the education system.
RECOMMENDATION 1 Data collection systems should be adjusted to collect information to help departments and institutions better understand the nature of the student populations they serve and the pathways these students take to complete science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees.
RECOMMENDATION 2 Federal agencies, foundations, and other entities that fund research in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education should prioritize research to assess whether enrollment mobility in STEM is a response to financial, institutional, individual, or other factors, both individually and collectively, and to improve understanding of how student progress in STEM, in comparison with other disciplines, is affected by enrollment mobility.
RECOMMENDATION 3 Federal agencies, foundations, and other entities that support research in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education should support studies with
multiple methodologies and approaches to better understand the effectiveness of various co-curricular programs.
RECOMMENDATION 4 Institutions, states, and federal policy makers should better align educational policies with the range of education goals of students enrolled in 2-year and 4-year institutions. Policies should account for the fact that many students take more than 6 years to graduate and should reward 2-year and 4-year institutions for their contributions to the educational success of students they serve, which includes not only those who graduate.
RECOMMENDATION 5 Institutions of higher education, disciplinary societies, foundations, and federal agencies that fund undergraduate education should focus their efforts in a coordinated manner on critical issues to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) strategies, programs, and policies that can improve STEM instruction.
RECOMMENDATION 6 Accrediting agencies, states, and institutions should take steps to support increased alignment of policies that can improve the transfer process for students.
RECOMMENDATION 7 State and federal agencies and accrediting bodies together should explore the efficacy and tradeoffs of different articulation agreements and transfer policies.
RECOMMENDATION 8 Institutions should consider how expanded and improved co-curricular supports for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students can be informed by and integrated into work on more systemic reforms in undergraduate STEM education to more equitably serve their student populations.
RECOMMENDATION 9 Disciplinary departments, institutions, university associations, disciplinary societies, federal agencies, and accrediting bodies should work together to support systemic and long-lasting changes to undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.