Overall undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase in the United States in the coming decade. It has been estimated that participation in postsecondary education will rise from about 17.7 million students in 2012 to 20.2 million students in 2023 (National Center for Education Statistics,
In addition to the overall growth, enrollment has shifted across postsecondary sectors in the past two decades. Between 1990 and 2000, the growth rate for 2-year institutions exceeded those for 4-year institutions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). The reverse is now true: growth in 4-year enrollments now outpaces 2-year college enrollments.1 The net result of these shifts, as shown in Table 2-1, has been relative stability in the share of students enrolled in 2-year institutions. The private for-profit sector (both 2-year and 4-year) grew rapidly between 1990 and 2013, especially between 2000–2010 when enrollments quadrupled. However, this growth is derived from a very small base of less than 2 percent of nonprofit enrollments in 1990 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014).
These trends in enrollment have occurred at the same time as changes in how students navigate the undergraduate education system. As noted in Chapter 1, the path of graduating from high school and then enrolling in a baccalaureate program and earning a bachelor’s degree in 4 years is no longer the norm. An increasing number of students are earning credits from multiple institutions, are transferring between institutions (from 2-year to 4-year institutions, from 4-year to 2-year institutions, between 2-year insti-
1 These trends typically correlate with economic cycles. When the economy is in decline, 2-year enrollments increase faster than 4-year enrollments; when the economy is recovering, the reverse happens.
TABLE 2-1 25-Year Changes in the Undergraduate Student Population at 2-Year and 4-Year Institutions (in percentage)
|Aged 25 and Older||37||40|
|Enrolled in 2-Year Institutions||43||40|
|Enrolled Part Time||42||50|
|Employed Part Time||a||40|
|Employed Full Time||26||27|
a Part-time employment data were not available in 1987.
SOURCES: Data from Digest of Education Statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, 1990) and U.S. Department of Education, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).
tutions, and between 4-year institutions), or are enrolled in more than one institution at the same time. In fact, in 2012, 45 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to students who earned credits from a community college (National Student Clearinghouse, 2012).
Analyses of National Student Clearinghouse data on all first-time, full-time, and part-time students who started in any type of institution in 2006 (nearly 2.8 million students) show that over approximately 5 years, one-third of the students transferred to a different institution between their initial enrollment and degree completion (Hossler et al., 2012). Most transfers took place in the second year, but there were significant numbers for all 5 years: 15 percent, first year; 37 percent, second year; 26 percent, third year; 22 percent, fourth year; and 25 percent, fifth year. The total is more than 100 percent because 25 percent of students transferred at least twice. A total of 43 percent of students who transferred from all types of institutions went to a public 2-year college, making this the most popular destination (Hossler et al., 2012). Community colleges are popular destinations for transferring students due to a number of factors, including lower cost, increased accessibility (The College Board, 2014), and proximity to students’ homes, relative to 4-year institutions.
Across all fields of study, it is uncommon for students to graduate on time (e.g., completing a 2-year degree in 2 years or a 4-year degree in 4 years). The on-time completion rate for 1- and 2-year certificates is just
16 percent; for 2-year associate’s degrees, it is just 5 percent;2 and for 4-year bachelor’s degrees, it is less than 35 percent (Complete College America, 2014). In addition, not all students enroll in college in the academic year after graduating from high school (Kena et al., 2014). Many students take one or more semesters off between high school and college, and some only enroll years later. Together, the array of entrance and exit points and multiple institutional enrollment patterns create a complex set of student pathways for obtaining an undergraduate credential.
Along with changes in how students navigate their way to credentials in STEM and other fields, the demographic profile of the students who are attending undergraduate institutions is also changing. Today’s undergraduate college population looks somewhat different from the college population of 25 years ago (Table 2-1). For students from low-income families, there has been a nearly 18-percent increase in enrollment since 1990 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014), and women are a slightly larger majority, about 57 percent today compared with 54 percent 25 years ago. The student population is also now more racially and ethnically diverse (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). Increasing numbers of black and Hispanic students are attending college: as a consequence, non-Hispanic white students now account for a smaller fraction of all college students. In 1990, 77 percent of college students were non-Hispanic white; in 2012, the number was 57 percent. Between 1990 and 2012, the percentage of college students who were black rose from 12 to 15 percent, and the percentage of students who were Hispanic rose from 6 to 16 percent. During the same time period, the percentage of students who were American Indian/Alaska Native remained relatively stable (0.8% and 0.9%).
The student population is slightly older than in the past. In 2012, about 60 percent of undergraduate students were under age 25, compared with 63 percent in 1987. Today’s diverse populations of undergraduate enrollees are distributed very differently across types of institutions by age and by race (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). For example, in fall 2011, 14 percent of full-time students enrolled at 4-year public institutions were over age 25, compared with 29 percent of full-time students enrolled at 2-year public institutions. A greater proportion of part-time students at both 4-year public institution (50%) and 2-year public instructions (48%) in fall 2011 were over 25.
Changes in the student population are linked to precollege factors. The percentage of students who completed high school in 2012 differs by socioeconomic status and by race and ethnicity. The gap in access to college is also apparent in the difference in college-going rates after high
2 Students who transfer to 4-year institutions without earning an associate’s degree are counted against the on-time completion rate.
school graduation among students from different backgrounds. Students from families with a high income are more likely to enroll in postsecondary institutions the year after completing high school (81%) than students from middle- (65%) or low- income (52%) families (Kena et al., 2014). The higher enrollment rates of white students compared to black students first measured in 1990 no longer existed in 2012. In 2012, only Asian students enrolled in a postsecondary institution the year after completing high school (84%) at a higher rate than other students: white (67%), Hispanic (69%), and black (62%) students.3 While the gap in enrollment in college after completing high school between racial minorities and whites has been closed, lower percentages of black (68%), American Indian/Alaska Native (68%), and Hispanic (76%) students graduate from high school compared to white students (85%) (Kena et al., 2014). In addition, students from racial minority groups continue to be concentrated in community colleges, less selective 4-year institutions, and for-profit institutions. There is some research on the precollege factors that influence student aspirations to earn STEM degrees. See Box 2-1 for an overview of factors related to engineering.
The rest of this chapter explores how these trends are reflected in the composition of the pool of students pursuing undergraduate STEM credentials and the pathways they take through the undergraduate education system. We look at the 4-year pathways, the 2-year pathways, and the for-profit sector. We discuss data regarding who completes STEM degrees and who does not. Throughout, we consider the similarities and differences among STEM aspirants and the overall undergraduate student population. Limitations in the nationally representative data sources on STEM education restricted our exploration of the array of pathways to complete a STEM credential: see Box 2-2. We close with conclusions regarding these STEM pathways.
In the last decade, the United States has seen roughly a 10 percentage point increase in the numbers of first-time, full-time students who enter 4-year institutions with the intention of pursuing a major in a STEM discipline (Eagan et al., 2013; Hurtado et al., 2012; National Science Foundation, 2014). Although interest in pursuing STEM majors continues to increase, overall STEM completion rates have remained stagnant, and disparities among underrepresented groups persist (Eagan et al., 2014). Two previous consensus reports and a recent workshop captured this scenario and have already made the case for improvements in undergraduate STEM education, especially for students from groups typically underrepresented
3 Data on American Indian/Alaska Native students were not available.
among STEM degree earners: see National Academy of Sciences (2007); National Research Council (2011); and National Academy of Engineering and American Society for Engineering Education (2014).
Although students who begin college as traditional first-time, full-time students may have higher probabilities of attaining STEM career goals than non-first-time (e.g., transfer or returning students) and part-time students, “the “traditional” pathway of entering college as a STEM major and completing that degree program in 4 years “is becoming anything but typical or commonplace” (Eagan et al., 2014, p. 2). Many first-time students who begin at 4-year colleges and universities switch into and out of STEM majors, concurrently enroll at more than one campus, take semesters or full years off (often referred to as stopping out), and even drop out of college. These patterns differ across students’ background characteristics, initial intended majors, type of institution, and where students initially enroll (Eagan et al., 2014).
Drawing from nationally weighted data collected from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s (CIRP) annual Freshman Survey for 2004 (Sax et al., 2004) and matched with data from the 2010 National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), Eagan and colleagues (2014) provide trend analyses on aspiring first-time freshmen and longitudinal analyses that focus on completion rates based on the characteristics of students who intend to pursue STEM and students who were non-STEM majors at college entry. It is important to note that Eagan and colleagues include the natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics as the default components of STEM; when social and behavioral sciences are included in their analyses, it is specifically noted.
The Freshman Survey covers hundreds of thousands of first-time, full-time entering freshmen at 4-year colleges and universities nationwide. The National Science Foundation (NSF) relies on these data for the National Science Board’s biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report. The data are weighted within institution and within institutional type by gender, and the weighted data represent characteristics of the national population of first-time, full-time freshmen in nonprofit 4-year colleges and universities in the United States.
To examine persistence and completion rates of students, Eagan and colleagues (2014) matched data from the 2004 Freshman Survey with enrollment and completion data from NSC. The timeframe for the NSC data ranged from August 2004 through June 2010, which allowed for analyses regarding 4-, 5-, and 6-year degree completion for students who entered a 4-year college or university as a first-time, full-time freshman. The combined dataset also has been weighted by gender within institution and within institutional type to make this sample of first-time, full-time freshman representative of the national population of first-time, full-time students who entered college in fall 2004.
The Freshman Survey includes more than 250 variables representing student characteristics, precollege experiences, and educational and career goals. To identify the characteristics of students who intend to pursue STEM majors when they enter college, Eagan and colleagues primarily relied on student demographic characteristics, intended major, and precollege academic preparation. Tracking STEM aspirants is essential, as most studies focus on STEM students after they have declared a major and therefore underestimate the loss of STEM student talent in the first 2 years of college.4 There is also evidence that choosing a STEM major is directly influenced by intent to major in a STEM field (Wang, 2013).
Figure 2-2 shows a slight increase from 2001 to 2011 in the proportion of all entering full-time first-year students who indicate at college entry that they have an interest in majoring in STEM. With the exception of mathematics, all STEM fields show increased student interest and have recovered in the last decades from an all-time low in the late 1980s. Comparing student intentions by race and ethnicity, the initial gap between underrepresented minority students and white and Asian students evident in 1971 has largely been closed, and only in the last few years is there evidence of slight differences, with 38 percent of white and Asian students aspiring to STEM majors, compared with 35 percent of underrepresented
4 All students who aspire to a STEM degree do not start college in a STEM major. Many enter college without declaring a major or in a non-STEM major. For example, many 2-year colleges do not require students to declare a major, and students do not need to receive an associate’s degree prior to transferring to a STEM major at a 4-year institution.
minority students. Asian American students are still slightly more likely to aspire to a STEM degree than all other groups. Hispanic students’ interest has increased along with their growth in the college population.
Women’s interest in STEM majors has increased substantially, along with their representation in the college population. One notable trend, illustrated in Figure 2-3, is that the gender gap has been reversed among STEM aspirants. In 1971, 62 percent of men and 38 percent of women aspired to a STEM degree; in 2012 the percentages were 48 percent and 52 percent respectively. When social sciences are included in the analysis of STEM aspirants, more than half (52%) of all first-time, full-time students indicated an interest in a STEM major. In addition, it is important to note that female aspirations to earn a STEM degree differ by discipline. Females are a big majority in social sciences (70%) and a majority in biological sciences (62%), while they are distinct minorities in engineering (21%) and in math and computer science (25%).5
5 Women account for less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science and more than 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics. See http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15311/digest/nsf15311-digest.pdf [July 2015].
Students who intend to major in STEM areas differ from all students in their level of precollege preparation: STEM-interested students begin college better prepared academically, more likely to have a higher than average grade point average (GPA), and more likely to have completed higher-level courses in mathematics (including calculus and advanced placement [AP] calculus) (Eagan et al., 2014). Not surprisingly, aspiring engineers are more likely to enter college with higher levels of mathematics; those who have aspirations in the biological sciences have more years of biology; and those who have aspirations in the physical sciences have more years of high school physical science coursework (Eagan et al., 2014). Demographic differences in intended majors occur across fields: women are more likely to pursue biological sciences, health professions, and social sciences and men are more likely to intend majors in engineering, mathematics, and computer science, as well as the physical sciences. The social sciences have the greatest percentage of aspirants from historically underrepresented groups: see Table 2-2. Social science aspirants are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds (38%) than physical science aspirants (26%). More than one-third of aspirants to health professions majors come from the lowest income category.
TABLE 2-2 Student Characteristics and Precollege Preparation across STEM Disciplines and Social Sciences (in percentage)
|Student Characteristics||Biological Sciences (15,338)||Engineering (15,727)||Health Professions (17,444)||Math/ Computer Science (3,850)||Physical Science (4,140)||Social Science (20,763)|
|American Indian||< 1||< 1||< 1||< 1||< 1||< 1|
|College degree or higher||59||62||51||58||62||52|
|HS GPA: A-or higher||62||62||50||55||64||45|
|Years of HS math: 4 or more||92||94||87||92||92||84|
|Years of HS physical science: 3 or more||29||39||27||33||50||28|
|Years of HS biological science: 3 or more||29||12||23||13||16||18|
|Completed AP calculus||42||60||21||51||50||22|
NOTES: AP = advanced placement; GPA = grade point average; HS = high school.
SOURCE: Eagan et al. (2014, Table 2).
The majority of students who enter a 4-year institution intending to major in the natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics do not earn a degree in these fields, and most of the students who switch majors do so after an introductory course in mathematics, science, or engineering (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). There is some evidence suggesting that many students who perform well in introductory classes and are capable of earning a STEM degree still switch majors (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997; Brainard and Carlin, 1998). Students who are interviewed about why they switched majors often cite uninspiring and ineffective classroom environment and teaching practices as the reason (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). The population of those who complete STEM degrees is argued to be the result of the cumulative effects of students’ individual decision making in response to factors in their institutions (e.g., quality of teaching, availability of support structures, discovery of attractive alternative majors) and external factors (e.g., early educational preparation, financial concerns, and larger social issues that affect specific groups).
STEM degree completion varies across fields, by students’ race, ethnicity, and gender, and by institutional type (Eagan et al., 2014). Figure 2-4 shows the probability of completing the originally intended major, switch-
ing to another STEM field, switching to a non-STEM field, still being enrolled after 6 years, and no longer being enrolled in college, all by students’ initial field of study. Engineering and life science programs appear to do a better job of retaining students: 39 percent of engineering, 37 percent of life science, and 36 percent mathematics aspirants completed a degree in that field in 6 years, and another 8 percent, 6 percent, and 8 percent respectively switched to a different STEM field. The reason for this difference for engineering and life science aspirants is unclear. For engineering aspirants this trend could be due to the higher academic characteristics of aspiring engineers (evidenced in Table 2-2, above), the timing of entry into an engineering major (sometimes occurring in the third year of college), or other factors.
In contrast with engineering and life sciences, less than 25 percent of students who began college intending to major in the physical sciences completed a degree in 6 years, 20 percent shifted to a different area of STEM, and nearly 30 percent switched to a non-STEM major. Mathematics and statistics lost the largest percentage of their aspiring majors to non-STEM fields (32%), but their aspirants were more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree in any field (67%) and less likely to have dropped out of higher education (15%) (Eagan et al., 2014).
Not all STEM degree earners state an interest in a STEM degree when entering college. Among the 34,616 students who earned a STEM degree in the dataset analyzed by Eagan and colleagues, 18 percent originally intended to pursue a non-STEM major. About 30 percent came from the group of students who originally indicated they were “undecided/undeclared” at college entry. Fields from which the largest numbers of students who switched into a STEM major were drawn were business (16%) and education (14%).
Completion rates vary considerably by race and ethnicity, gender, and STEM fields. Although historically underrepresented racial minority students now aspire toward STEM degrees at the same rates as white and Asian American students, disparities in STEM completion by race and ethnicity persist: see Figure 2-5. First, overall, students are taking more time for the degree—typically 5 years: only 22 percent of initial STEM aspirants completed a STEM degree in 4 years. Within 6 years of entering college in 2004, just over 40 percent of all first-time, full-time STEM aspirants completed a STEM degree. Within this cohort Asian American students outpaced their peers in STEM at the 4-, 5-, and 6-year completion rates, with a total of 52 percent completing a STEM degree in 6 years. White students lagged their Asian American counterparts, with 43 percent completing a STEM bachelor’s degree in 6 years. Historically underrepresented minorities lagged further, with only 29 percent of Hispanic aspirants, 25 percent of American Indian aspirants, and 22 percent of black aspirants earning a STEM degree
in 6 years. By comparison, the 6-year completion rates are higher across all majors for Hispanics, American Indians, and blacks: 29 percent, 25 percent, and 22 percent respectively (Eagan et al., 2014).
The completion rates by gender and field for STEM aspirants are shown in Table 2-3. Interestingly, the 4-year completion rate was nearly the same for women and men (23% for women and 21% for men), but the rate was lower for women after 6 years (38% for women and 43% for men). The 6-year completion rates vary across fields, with women aspirants more likely than men to complete engineering degrees (43% of women and 40% of men); male aspirants more likely than women to complete bachelor’s degrees in the physical sciences (28% of women and 33% of men); and male and female aspirants in the biomedical sciences about equally likely to complete the bachelor’s degree (34% of women and 34% of men).
Degree attainment rates among initial STEM aspirants also vary by
TABLE 2-3 Cumulative Percentage of STEM Aspirants at 4-Year Institution Who Completed a STEM Degree in 4, 5, or 6 Years after Entering College in 2004 (N = 56,499)
|Discipline and Completion Time||Men||Women|
|4-Year Biomedical Sciences||23||22|
|5-Year Biomedical Sciences||32||32|
|6-Year Biomedical Sciences||34||34|
|4-Year Physical Sciences||23||23|
|5-Year Physical Sciences||31||27|
|6-Year Physical Sciences||33||28|
SOURCE: Eagan et al. (2014, Table 4).
the type of institution.6 Doctoral and research universities outperformed liberal arts and master’s comprehensive institutions for STEM completion rates among STEM aspirants in engineering and biomedical sciences, but liberal arts colleges outperformed the other institutions when considering completion in the physical sciences (Eagan et al., 2014). Although private institutions had a completion advantage over public institutions, a previous study indicates that the differences in completion rates become nonsignificant after accounting for differences in the types of students enrolled at public and private institutions and for resource disparities across these institutions (Hurtado et al., 2012).
STEM completion rates differ across predominantly white institutions, historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and emerging Hispanic-serving institutions:7 see Table 2-4. The emerging Hispanic-serving institutions showed the highest completion rates for STEM bachelor’s degree aspirants at 4 years (27%), 5 years (44%), and 6 years
6 The Carnegie Classification System for Institutions of Higher Education was used in the following analyses. For an overview of the Carnegie Classification System of Institutions of Higher Education, see http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/ [October 2015].
7 Emerging Hispanic-serving institutions are those enrolling 15-24 percent Hispanics, just below the 25 percent cutoff for Department of Education designation as a Hispanic-serving institution.
|Cumulative Completion Rate|
|Student Population Served||4 Years||5 Years||6 Years|
|Predominantly White Institutions||23.7||38.0||42.6|
|Historically Black Colleges and Universities||8.0||15.6||19.3|
|Emerging Hispanic-Serving Institutions||26.7||44.1||47.5|
SOURCE: Eagan et al. (2014, Table 5).
(48%). Completion rates in STEM majors were lower at Hispanic-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities. Eagan and colleagues (2014) found that these institutions typically enroll larger numbers of students from low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented groups who have lower completion rates at many colleges and often do not have the same level of resources as students at selective predominantly white institutions. When Eagan and colleagues (2014) controlled for student and institutional factors, they found that the difference in completion rates between minority-serving institutions and predominantly white institutions became nonsignificant. In addition, these multivariate analyses demonstrated that black STEM aspirants are more likely to graduate with a STEM degree if they attended a historically black college or university than if they had been enrolled at a predominantly white university.
Enrollment mobility is often unaccounted for in discussions of STEM students. Mobility is highest among traditional-age college students who begin at 4-year institutions. Eagan and colleagues’ (2014) analysis of aspiring STEM majors’ trajectories found that, over six years, approximately 15 percent of these students reverse transferred from 4-year to 2-year institutions; 13 percent transferred laterally from one 4-year institution to another; and approximately 9 percent were concurrently enrolled in more than one institution (or campus) (Salzman and Van Noy, 2014). Data on first-time college students (which is not limited to full-time freshmen) from the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) Survey of the National Center for Education Statistics, indicate that 42 percent of 4-year STEM degree holders reported they had reverse transferred, laterally transferred, or were concurrently enrolled (Salzman and Van Noy, 2014). A separate longitudinal study found that between 2001 and 2007, about one-half of all STEM
bachelor’s degree recipients had attended a community college at some point in their college career (Mooney and Foley, 2011).
Attending multiple institutions is associated with increased time to degree and lower STEM degree completion rates (Salzman and Van Noy, 2014). The relationship between STEM student mobility and completion rates is shown in Table 2-5: low levels of completion are associated with reverse transfers and slower progression with lateral transfers. Concurrent enrollment was not as strongly related to students’ completion as transfer. Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014) also note a negative relationship between student mobility across 2-year and 4-year colleges and completion rates (see next section for discussion of 2-year colleges). The mobility described here hints at some of the many ways that students navigate the higher education system. It also shows the difficulties of developing metrics to track students along these multiple pathways or to assess institutions’ contribution to or detraction from these students’ success.
The complex picture that emerges from the analyses of 4-year college students is characterized by the following:
- strong intention to major in STEM by students from all population groups;
- different distributions across STEM fields by different demographic groups;
- losses of intended majors from STEM and recruitment to STEM of non-STEM-intending students; and
- use of multiple institutions and pathways during matriculation.
Box 2-3 provides an example of the complexity of the pathways for STEM degrees for engineering.
TABLE 2-5 Cumulative Percentage of STEM Completion by Mobility Status
|Kind of Mobility||Cumulative Completion Rate|
|4 Years||5 Years||6 Years|
NOTE: The completion rates are cumulative.
SOURCE: Eagan et al. (2014, Table 8).
Community colleges are accessible and affordable, serve a diverse population, and offer a great variety of degree programs and pathways in STEM for high-skill as well as middle-skill jobs. Yet, the research base on community colleges is more limited than that for 4-year institutions. The data we reviewed indicated that community colleges play a substantial role in addressing workforce needs and in further developing the talent pool of students who may later obtain advanced STEM degrees.
Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014) drew on the NCES BPS 2004 and 2009 surveys—which included a nationally representative cohort of students who enrolled in postsecondary education for the first time in 2003–2004 in credit-
bearing programs—to analyze the pathways of community college students aspiring to earn a STEM credential. Focusing their analysis on the characteristics of community college students who enroll in STEM programs, the authors included both general STEM fields and specialized career-focused STEM programs. They included biology, mathematics, engineering, physical sciences, computer and information systems, engineering, and programs for engineering technicians, technicians, agriculture, and science technologies.8 The major focus of their analyses was on natural sciences, engineering, technology and technician programs, and mathematics. The authors identified whether a student was in a STEM program using BPS data on student majors collected through student interviews and student transcripts.
Community colleges play a significant role in STEM education. As noted earlier in this chapter, 2-year institutions played an important role in 2012, when 2-year students accounted for 40 percent of all undergraduates across all fields of study (Table 2-1). Van Noy and Zeidenberg’s (2014) analysis of data on community college entrants in 2003–2004 found that about half were enrolled at some time in a STEM field over the following 6 years.
Community colleges offer two major categories of STEM programs: science and engineering programs (and a small number of mathematics programs) and technician programs. The first set of programs are transfer programs, to prepare students to pursue study that usually requires a bachelor’s degree or higher; the second set are occupational programs with the goal of a credential, usually a certificate or associate’s degree. These programs provide an “on ramp” to further science and engineering study, 2 years of preparation and access to an associate’s degree in arts or sciences leading to transfer to a 4-year institution’s program of study. Although technician programs can also lead to a degree (e.g., associate in applied science) and to transfer, their primary goal is to develop the knowledge and skills required to directly enter the workforce.
Table 2-6 breaks down enrollment in community colleges by these various programs, among students who ever enrolled in the 6 years after entry in 2003–2004. As shown in Table 2-6, about one-half of community college students enrolled in a STEM field, including science and engineering (7%), technician programs (10%), social sciences (11%), and health professions that required extensive science and mathematics coursework (23%).
8 They also looked separately at programs in the social sciences and health professions, as was done for 4-year institutions (above), since the health professions have significant science and mathematics course requirements.
TABLE 2-6 Community College Enrollments by Program, Ever Enrolled in the 6 Years after College Entry among First-time Students Who Began College in 2003–2004
|Number of Students||Percentage of Students|
|Science & Engineering Programs|
|Total science and engineering||109,592||6.6|
|Biological and biomedical sciences||42,152||2.6|
|Mathematics and statistics||9,134||0.6|
|Computer and information sciences||101,264||6.1|
|Closely Related Programs|
|Total health professions and related programs||372,721||22.6|
|Total social sciences||175,397||10.6|
SOURCE: Van Noy and Zeidenberg, (2014, Table 1)
Comparing enrollments by type of institution, 4-year colleges had a higher representation of students majoring in science and engineering than 2-year colleges, especially for biology and engineering (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014; see Figure 2-6). Conversely, 2-year colleges outpaced 4-year colleges in enrollment of engineering technician and computer and information sciences programs, reflecting the greater emphasis on workforce preparation programs in community colleges. Students’ credential goals also reflected the different program orientation at 2-year and 4-year institutions. An associate’s degree or certificate was the goal of 35 percent of the technician students, compared to 15 percent of the students in science and engineering programs. Sixty percent of the technician students and 80 percent of science and engineering students reported that their ultimate goal was to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
Community college students in both science and engineering programs and technician programs shared some characteristics that distinguish them from 4-year college students: they were older and more likely to be first-generation college students; they were more likely to be working while enrolled, and when working, to work more hours than those 4-year college students who worked; and they were more likely to require developmental education (see Table 2-7). For the student populations at 2-year institutions, technician students were older than science and engineering students, included more first-generation students, and were more likely to take developmental courses than science and engineering students.
There were significant demographic differences in the students who enrolled in 2-year and 4-year institutions (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014). Hispanic students were more likely to be enrolled in community colleges than in 4-year institutions in both STEM and non-STEM programs. Among 2-year STEM aspirants, Hispanic, Asian, and female students were more likely to be enrolled in science and engineering programs than in technician
TABLE 2-7 Characteristics of STEM Students at 2-Year and 4-Year Institutions (in percentage)
|Student Characteristics||2-Year Students||4-Year Students|
|All STEM||Science and Engineering||Technician||Non-STEM||STEM||Non-STEM|
|Pell Grant Recipients||26||24||27||29||26||28|
|First-Generation College Student||68||62||72||73||38||46|
|Average Age at Enrollment||22||20||23||24||19||20|
|Working While Enrolled||76||78||74||78||55||62|
|Average Hours Worked (of those working)||30||28||30||30||19||1|
|Developmental Education in First Year|
SOURCE: Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014, Table 3).
programs. Black students constituted a larger share of those enrolled in technician programs (13%) than of those enrolled in science and engineering programs (8%). Technician program enrollments were overwhelmingly white and male. Women were less likely to be enrolled in technician programs (24%) relative to the proportion enrolled in science and engineering (40%) or non-STEM programs (62%).
Community colleges are more accessible to many students because of the cost of attendance relative to that of 4-year institutions. The average price of attendance in the first year among STEM students at community college was $6,896, in comparison with $18,885 for STEM students at 4-year institutions (see Table 2-8). The expected family contributions for STEM students at 4-year institutions were higher as well: $13,987 for 4-year STEM students and $9,748 for community college STEM students.
A related difference is in loans: as shown in Table 2-8, STEM students in 4-year institutions were more likely to take out student loans while in college than students in community colleges, 62 percent and 47 percent, respectively. They also had higher student loans 6 years after their initial enrollment: the average was $21,143 for 4-year students and $15,245 for community college students.
The enrollment patterns of STEM students at 2-year and 4-year institutions differed greatly in the BPS sample analyzed by Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014). As shown in Table 2-9, STEM students at 2-year institutions were less likely than those in 4-year colleges to be enrolled full time (33% and 68%, respectively), and they were less likely to have had continuous enrollment with no dropouts (47% and 71%, respectively). On the other hand, students in technician programs at 2-year institutions were more likely to attend only one institution (59%) than students in science and engineering programs (33%).
Studies of all community college students, regardless of their field of study, have illustrated connections between enrollment patterns and student outcomes. These studies reveal a positive connection between continuous enrollment in community college, without multiple breaks or movement across multiple institutions, and completion of a college credential (Crosta, 2014; Goldrick-Rab, 2006). These studies also found a positive association between enrollment intensity (the amount of credit hours taken each semester) and likelihood of transfer to a 4-year institution, when transfer is the student’s goal.
The frequency of student “swirling”—movement between multiple institutions prior to degree attainment—is about the same for both community college and 4-year college STEM students.
TABLE 2-8 Financial Characteristics of STEM Students at 2-Year and 4-Year Institutions
|Financial Characteristics||Students at 2-Year Institutions||Students at 4-Year Institutions|
|All STEM||Science and Engineering||Technician||Non-STEM||STEM||Non-STEM|
|Price of Attendance in First Year||$6,896||$6,807||$7,219||$6,601||$18,885||$17,957|
|Expected Family Contribution in First Year||$9,748||$10,079||$9,105||$8,241||$13,987||$13,045|
|Percentage with Student Loans after 6 Years||47%||45%||52%||40%||62%||64%|
|Average Student Loan among Those with Loans after 6 Years||$15,245||$14,163||$17,007||$13,438||$21,143||$21,042|
SOURCE: Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014, Table 4).
TABLE 2-9 Enrollment Patterns of STEM Students, by Subfield, at 2-Year and 4-Year Institutions (in percentage)
|Enrollment Patterns||Students at 2-Year Institutions||Students at 4-Year Institutions|
|All STEM||Science and Engineering||Technician||Non-STEM||STEM||Non-STEM|
|Average Enrollment Intensity|
|Always full time||33||36||32||27||68||65|
|Always part time||13||8||15||22||1||2|
|Mixed part time and full time||53||55||53||51||31||33|
|Constancy of Attendance/Number of Stopouts|
|Attend only one institution||49||33||59||62||75||74|
|Attend multiple institutions, swirling||26||26||25||19||25||26|
SOURCE: Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014, Table 5)
About the same proportion of community college students are likely to switch into STEM fields after initial enrollment as the proportion of entrants indicating a major in STEM, as shown in Table 2-10. Possible explanations for this later entry include limited advising capacity of the institution, indecision related to the lack of exposure to options, or the regular process of career exploration (factors that are not unique to community college institutions and students). There are consequences to such delaying selection of a major, including extended time to completion and increased cost (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014). It is important to note that this analysis of selection of a major does not capture the major that students aspired to earn when starting college, because this information is not captured in the BPS survey. Thus, the loss of STEM aspirants prior to declaring a major is not represented in this analysis.
Community college STEM students switch out of STEM at a higher rate than 4-year students in STEM majors (28% and 22%, respectively; for more details, see Table 2-10). They also take more developmental courses, especially in mathematics, than students at 4-year institutions (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014). Students who switch fields of study move into a range of non-STEM majors, including business, health professions, and education. There may be at least two possible interpretations of these switches. Some students may discover that they do not like the STEM program or have found a program that is a better match for their interests and abilities: if so, their departure from STEM is not a negative outcome but rather part of the natural process of exploration and discovery in college. Another interpretation is that some students have negative experiences in STEM programs for which they are otherwise actually a good match: if so, it would be a major concern. Existing research points to the fact that the culture of STEM classrooms and departments are unwelcoming to many students, especially women and underrepresented minorities (Ramsey et al.,
TABLE 2-10 Major Decision Making among STEM Students (in percentage)
|Major Decisions||Community College||4-Year College|
|All STEM||Science and Engineering||Technician||All STEM|
|Timing of Entry into STEM|
|Enter STEM at initial enrollment||51||53||51||62|
|Switch into STEM after first year of enrollment||49||47||49||38|
|Switch out of STEM to a Non-STEM Major||28||27||28||22|
SOURCE: Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014, Table 6).
2013; Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). Some departmental, institutional, state, and federal policies may also serve to push students away from attaining a STEM degree. We explore the effects of these and other barriers on student completion of STEM degrees in Chapters 3 and 4.
Given students’ varied intentions and credential goals, Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014) warn against the sole focus on degree completion, cautioning that multiple measures of community college STEM outcomes are necessary. As discussed in Chapter 1, students at 2-year colleges may seek to earn a 2-year degree, transfer to a 4-year institution without earning a degree, earn a certificate, or learn job-related skills. Thus, in addition to measures of credential completion, other measures of transfer, credential attainment at other institutions, continued enrollment, and employment are needed to assess community college student outcomes (Rassen et al., 2013).
About 30 percent of STEM community college students had either earned a credential or were still enrolled in STEM, and about 33 percent had either attained a credential or were still enrolled in a non-STEM field (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2014; see Table 2-11). Of those who left STEM, students in technician programs had a very different trajectory from those in science and engineering programs: for example, they were more likely to have left college without completing any credential (41% in science and 27% in engineering). The lower rate of completion among students in technician programs may be due to obtaining employment prior to completing the requirements for a credential. Or it may be due to any number of negative factors, such as insufficient money to proceed. Without reliable data on why students leave college prior to completing a certificate or degree, it is not possible to gauge the success of these technician programs.
In terms of degree outcomes, about 20 percent of STEM community college students attained any STEM credential 6 years after enrollment (see Table 2-12). Sixteen percent of science and engineering students and
TABLE 2-11 Community College Student Completion and 6-Year Retention Rates (in percentage)
|Outcome||All STEM||Science and Engineering||Technician|
|Attained Credential or Still Enrolled in STEM||30||33||30|
|Attained Credential or Still Enrolled in Non-STEM||33||39||29|
|Dropped Out without Credential||37||27||41|
SOURCE: Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014, Table 7).
TABLE 2-12 Six-Year Outcomes for Community College STEM Students (in percentage)
|Outcome||All||Science and Engineering||Technician|
|Attained STEM Credential|
|Associate’s degree or certificate||9||5||13|
|At any institution||16||19||14|
|At community college||7||6||8|
|At 4-year college||8||13||6|
|Transferred to 4-Year College in STEM Program||25||37||19|
NOTE: Students may be included in more than one category; students who transferred may also be counted as attaining a STEM credential or still enrolled in a STEM program.
SOURCE: Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2014, Table 8).
7 percent of technician students completed STEM bachelor’s degrees. In addition, 16 percent of all STEM students were still enrolled in STEM 6 years after initial enrollment (19% of science and engineering students and 14% of technician students).
The for-profit sector of postsecondary education differs from the nonprofit (public and private) sector in three essential ways: finance, governance, and a market-driven focus. The distinguishing feature of for-profit institutions is that they are businesses, ranging from small family-owned activities to large corporate entities, which are run to generate revenues. These institutions are accountable to investors and stockholders, as well as to state and federal governments, and they have a strong customer service orientation (Ruch, 2001).9 The for-profit institutions have the capacity to move swiftly to meet market demand in growing STEM areas.
Many for-profit institutions offer certificates and nondegree training, and they also award accredited associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees. They are usually accredited by a national accreditor rather than the regional
9 See Kinser (2014) for a history, scope, and diversity of the institutions.
TABLE 2-13 Completions in STEM Fields in 2012
|Fields||Public||Private Nonprofit||Private For Profit|
|Health Professions and Related Programs||401,479||97,544||330,964|
|Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services||64,906||15,462||38,597|
|Engineering Technologies and Engineering-Related Fields||59,952||4,361||26,088|
|Biological and Biomedical Sciences||72,452||32,122||201|
|Mathematics and Statistics||15,976||7,811||1|
SOURCE: Kinser (2014).
accreditors that service the nonprofit institutions (Kinser, 2014).10 Many offer credentials in STEM fields, often for middle-skills jobs (not requiring a 4-year degree) for which growth is projected and student demand is high. In 2012, for-profit institutions awarded slightly less than half the number of STEM credentials awarded by nonprofit institutions (both public and private), as shown in Table 2-13.
Across all types of postsecondary institutions, credentials in the health professions were the most frequently awarded (Kinser, 2014; Table 2-13). However, there were striking differences between for-profit and nonprofit institutions in the concentration of programs of study and the types of credentials awarded. First, more than 80 percent of the credentials awarded by for-profit institutions were in health professions and related programs, compared with just over 50 percent of the credentials awarded by public and private nonprofit institutions (Kinser, 2014). The for-profit sector also awards large numbers of engineering, technology and computer and information science credentials. Second, bachelor’s degrees made up a much smaller proportion of the total STEM credentials awarded by for-profit institutions compared to nonprofit institutions (see Figure 2-7) (Kinser, 2014).
Still, the numbers of graduates and scale of the for-profit sector are significant. In 2012, for-profit institutions awarded around 35,000 bachelor’s degrees, 102,000 associate’s degrees, and 257,000 certificates in STEM fields (Figure 2-7). For-profit institutions offer many online degree pro-
10 The data on for-profit institutions analyzed by Kinser are from NCES.
grams and Internet course delivery that is convenient to different groups of students, especially those who are working full time. In 2012, the University of Phoenix online campus—the largest postsecondary institution in the United States—awarded 20,798 STEM credentials, mostly associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in the health professions. It has also added new STEM fields of study (e.g., computer networking, security, and administration).
The for-profit institutions train a diverse population of students who take varied pathways to a STEM credential. In 2012, about half of all STEM credentials earned by black, Hispanic, and native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders were from for-profit institutions (Kinser, 2014; see Figure 2-8). For-profit institutions typically attract students whose goal is to “get in, get out, and get a job.” Recent analyses by the U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015) indicate that, in the fall of 2013, students enrolled in for-profit institutions (both 2-year and 4-year and both full time and part time) were older than comparable students at nonprofit 2-year and 4-year institutions. Earlier data suggest that the majority of students at for-profit institutions work 35 or more hours per week (Ruch, 2001, p. 134).
According to the Institute for College Success and Access (2014), 88 percent of students in for-profit institutions graduate with student debt (averaging $39,950), compared with 75 percent of students in private non-
profit institutions (averaging $32,300) and 66 percent of students in public institutions (averaging $22,550). Although most students at for-profit institutions are studying in programs at the sub-baccalaureate levels, these data raise an important set of questions that remain unanswered: Why do these students pursue a for-profit education in STEM fields even though typically the costs are higher for them? Is it the promise of a job and short degree program or convenience of an online education? How do these nondegree and degree holders fare in the job market? Is the curriculum too narrow to allow movement from for-profit to nonprofit degree programs? The answers to these questions could be instructive for nonprofit institutions working on diversifying the STEM fields and possibly result in articulation agreements to align for-profit with nonprofit postsecondary education curriculum and training goals.
Students are taking more complex pathways to earning STEM credentials than is generally assumed. They are likely to earn credits from more than one institution, to earn credits at a community college, and to transfer among institutions.
STEM students are also different than they were 25 years ago. The students are increasingly more likely to be from a minority group and to be single parents. The characteristics of students vary greatly across STEM disciplines, with rates of minority and female participation lowest in computer science, physics, and engineering.
The completion rates for students who aspire to a STEM degree remain lower than in non-STEM fields. At both 2-year and 4-year institutions, completion rates are lower for students from underrepresented groups compared to their white and Asian counterparts. Many students also take longer than expected to complete their credential. In addition, the goals of STEM aspirants (e.g., earning a degree or certificate, transferring to a 4-year institution, or gaining a specific job skill) and student populations vary across 2-year and 4-year institutions. Thus, it seems important to consider multiple factors (e.g., student goals, course completion, credit accumulation, time to and credits to degree, retention and transfer rates, degrees awarded, range of access) along with graduation rates when assessing the success of an institution.
The potential reasons for the low completion rates and differential rates across groups are explored in the following chapters.
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