Graduation Gaps for Science Majors: Whose fault is it?

February 18, 2010 at 9:38 am 6 comments

The good news: students hoping to major in STEM fields are growing as a proportion of the overall student population, reaching Cold War-era levels of interest. The bad news: students who start out planning to major in STEM fields graduate at far lower rates than their non-STEM classmates, especially if they’re black, Latino or Native American. “We’re seeing this increase over the last 15 years in students’ interest in STEM fields,” said Eagan, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, “but we’re not seeing a corresponding increase in students’ graduation rates.”

via News: Graduation Gaps for Science Majors – Inside Higher Ed.

In other words, we’re getting a lot more interest in CS-STEM (Yay!), but they’re leaving or flunking out before graduating (Boo!).  Why is that?  (By the way, “CS-STEM” is the term that DARPA is promoting to represent Computer Science + Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.)  The HERI@UCLA study that this cites explicitly does include computer science.

I found the comment thread really interesting on this piece.  Whose fault is it?  Some of the commentors suggest that it’s the fault of the high schools.  Students are unprepared upon entering a CS-STEM degree program, so they leave.  Others say that it’s the College classes.  The blame doesn’t lie with the faculty, some say, but the budget which keeps faculty from doing things that engage students (like lab activities and undergraduate research).  David Brooks, as mentioned here previously, lays the blame at the feet of the faculty who aren’t doing enough to support the lower-ability student (perhaps underprepared, perhaps without reasonable expectations because they’re the first in their family to go to College).

The author of the piece blames the Colleges, and points out that it’s the minority students who are hurting the most:

Instead, much of that blame lies with the nation’s colleges and universities for deterring students somewhere between freshman year and the completion of a bachelor’s degree in four or five years, he said. “Something that happens in college – and it goes beyond just preparation – is losing students.”

A third of white students and 42 percent of Asian-American students who started college as intended STEM majors graduated with STEM degrees by the end of five years. For underrepresented minorities, the five-year completion rates were much lower — 22.1 percent for Latino students, 18.4 percent for black students and 18.8 percent for Native American students. Some of those students may have still graduated in four or five years but changed to a non-STEM major or transferred out of the institution they entered as freshmen. Others may still be working on their degrees.

To hit the goals that Barack Obama has set out for graduating students, we need to understand better why we are losing so many students, and how to correct that.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  February 18, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Let’s suppose that the SEM parts of CSTEM are held to their traditional high thresholds (the universe judges S, people die if E isn’t done really well, and M requires real proofs). And let us suppose that C and T are forced to those same thresholds.

    Then, given what human brains are generally set up to do vs. what skills have to be required to get them to handle stuff we aren’t set up by nature to handle so well, what subjects and degrees in college would be more difficult to attain?

    This seems intrinsic to me.

    Having said that, I think that the biggest disasters in the formal schooling system happen in K-8 (and the earlier parts of this especially).

    The lack of real prep puts children in high school without most of the needed skills for augmenting our brains to handle CSTEM ideas and epistemological frameworks, and the high schools are desperate and have great pressure to graduate as many as possible. This winds us up with e.g. the decisions in many school districts not to require learning how to prove theorems in Geometry, and so forth.

    If the colleges are refraining from dumbing down (I think they are starting to slip here), then we are seeing an honest assessment of the students’ prep for the first time here.

    I certainly don’t agree with “Something that happens in college – and it goes beyond just preparation – is losing students.”

    Best wishes,


  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  February 18, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Does no one think that students have any part of the responsibility? That may itself be part of the problem. We look for blame everywhere but with the student.

    But focusing on the education system I blame third grade math classes that let students move on without knowing their multiplication tables. Yes I know they can use calculators but my totally unscientific belief based on my experience and observation is that something about learning those tables and getting multiplication down is a basic building block for the way our minds work. Get it and have a good chance for success in CS-STEM fields. Don’t get it and struggle. Everyone is looking for simplistic solutions so there you go.

    Of course there is more to it than that. There is also the fact that most STEM programs are all S & M. Very little in technology and engineering. With some of those the science and math makes more sense and has more relevance. There is not enough balance.

    And there is the cultural phenomena that says that moving money (numbers) around from one place to another is the way to make a fortune. It’s fast and its easy and it risks what other people do. Why learn to actually make something when you can get rich moving numbers around on the computer screen? Somewhere along the line we take the “I want to build something” attitude that causes kindergarten children to pile blocks on top of each other and we teach it out of them. That happens in grade school so by the time students get to college they look around and see that building things (using atoms or bits) is hard work and they forget (or forgot) that it can be fun and satisfying enough to be worth the effort.

    I don’t blame universities. I blame K-12.

    • 3. Alan Kay  |  February 18, 2010 at 3:50 pm

      Hi Alfred,

      I’ve always had a hard time figuring this stuff out wrt blaming students. Children are wired by nature to find strong fits to their environment (and this is supplied by nature and by the adults in their culture).

      There’s no question that when a child transgresses in some way that *some* of the cause could be genetic — but as Bertrand Russell pointed out, it’s more like 10% Nature 90% Nurture.

      I already mentioned that I think K-8 is the most negative force here.

      But, one thing that is sorely neglected after K (and is very much to your point about the de-emphasis of T and E) is that the latter in young childhood are concrete manifestations of the same kinds of causal-inferential relationships in mathematics. I’ve always felt that schools miss a fantastic opportunity here — to give children kinesthetic and iconic versions of math before delving into the symbolics.



  • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  February 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Hi Alan,

    Have you seen this video of Bobby McFerrin composing with an audience on a pentatonic scale: ? One of my students in the educational technology class sent it to me. It’s pretty striking, to me, how much he’s able to get the audience to engage, and that he says that it works with a wide variety of audiences.

    Is this an example of what you would see as kinesthetic and iconic ways of getting started in a domain that later has a significant symbolic component (e.g., music)? I wonder how much can be taught in the manner seen here.


    • 5. Alan Kay  |  February 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm

      Even better than McFerrin is the world wide “Drum Circle” work of Arthur Hull. This is one of the great ways for any one to get started with the real deal in music.

      Ron Thornton and others at Tufts some years ago did one of the best versions of kinesthetic and iconic learning for college students in physics, and it really worked extremely well. I don’t have their papers handy, but we duped their work to use in the Open School and got similar great results.



  • 6. student  |  February 20, 2010 at 1:19 am

    I’m a 3rd year. I may have to drop out again. There is a whole lot of real life that gets in the way of completing a degree. Mostly unforeseen financial, so I assume that it is worse for minorities.
    Arts students generally don’t have long lab periods. They are able to complete their homework and work part time. In the sciences I have very little time to even think, what with doing labs, and homework, and getting a job that fits your class schedule is more difficult.
    It might not be the teachers fault.
    Also if high schools had access to journals, especially review articles, to get in the habit of personal researching [not necessarily formal] and basically build the confidence of the student that they can read, and know how to access experts in a field.


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