Though students of all races enter STEM majors at roughly equal rates, black and Latino students leave the major at nearly twice the rate of white students, finds a study published in the journal Education Researcher.
The effect comes from a combination of students changing majors and students choosing to leave college. More than a third of black (40%) and Latino (37%) students switch majors before earning a degree, compared with 29% of white STEM students. Another 26% of black STEM students and 20% of Latino STEM students drop out of college altogether—13 and seven percentage points higher, respectively, than white STEM students (13%), according to the study.
To conduct the study, lead author Catherine Riegle-Crumb, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and researchers Yasmiyn Irizarry, an assistant professor at UT-Austin, and Barbara King, an assistant professor at Florida International University, analyzed federal data from the National Center of Education Statistics of more than 5,600 black, Latino, and white students who enrolled in college during the 2003-2004 academic year.
So why do black and Latino students leave STEM majors at nearly twice the rate of white students?
“If there’s demonstrated, strong interest in STEM among black and Latino youth, why would you see higher departure rates for these students?” asks Riegle-Crumb. “It’s not about interest or academic ability. So what causes this?”
The researchers suggest that because black and Latino students are more likely to come from low-income families, they might not have access to the academic resources that traditionally help support students through to completion.
But the researchers also speculate that discrimination and bias in STEM could be pushing minority students away from the field. After all, black and Latino students don’t leave other competitive majors, such as business, at the same high rates, note the researchers.
“I spent too much time in my head feeling like I didn’t belong, or wasn’t smart enough, that I couldn’t concentrate on my work,” says Deana Crouser, a Latina student at the University of Washington and former chemical engineering major. As one of just a few Latino engineering students, Crouser adds that feelings of exclusion eventually led her to switch out of the major.
It’s not uncommon for students to avoid or switch out of certain majors due to feelings of exclusion and discrimination—or even just anticipated feelings of exclusion and discrimination. According to a paper from University of Memphis economists Carmen Astorne-Figari and Jamin Speer, students tend to avoid or switch out of majors based on social factors. In other words, students tend to gravitate toward majors where the majority of students look like them, the authors explain.
“When [students] talked about leaving majors, they talked about the people as much as they did the academics,” says Speer. “That’s really interesting to me that people would make this decision that has huge implications for their career based partially on who they would want to be around,” he adds.
Similarly, a study published in the American Educational Research Journal suggests that women avoid STEM majors for the same reason. Women aren’t underrepresented in STEM because they dislike math or science, explains Joseph Cimpian, the study’s lead author. They’re underrepresented because they “don’t like to be discriminated against,” he writes.
According to the study, which included a survey of 330 undergraduate students, when women choose their major, the degree of gender discrimination they perceive in the field is the most predictive attribute.
So what can colleges do about this?
In the case of minority students in STEM, Darryl Dickerson, associate director of the minority engineering program at Purdue University and president of the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates, notes that because there’s no shortage of minority students enrolling in STEM programs, colleges and universities should focus less on recruitment more on retention efforts.
“Administrators need to talk to students, figure out what’s going on in classrooms and how they add to the exclusion these students feel,” says Dickerson. “We have to hone in on the reasons they’re leaving and directly address these issues before solving anything else.”
Harvey Mudd College, for instance, redesigned introductory computer science courses to be more welcoming to students without previous coding experience, raising the share of women computer science graduates from 10% in 2010 to 56% in 2018, according to Michelle DiMenna, who researches student success and equity at EAB.
After all, “students’ sense of belonging on campus is crucial not only for student success and persistence, but for student equity,” writes DiMenna. “Feeling respected, welcomed, and valued is correlated with outcomes like higher grades, retention, and engagement.”
Mentors can also help. For example, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County‘s (UMBC) Meyerhoff Scholars Program pairs students with local industry mentors and advisors to help with academic planning and social support. In an effort to increase diversity in STEM, the program has helped UMBC send more black undergraduate students to M.D.-Ph.D. programs than any other college in the United States.
Harvey Mudd also connects female students with women working in STEM fields to help them envision themselves in those roles. “Women in STEM fields benefit greatly from having female faculty role models,” says college president Maria Klawe. Harvey Mudd also sends groups of students to professional conferences for women in STEM, such as the Society of Women Engineers conference and the Grace Hopper Celebration.
A growing body of research, including EAB’s own this past year, tells us that students’ sense of belonging on campus is crucial not only for student success and persistence, but for student equity. Feeling respected, welcomed, and valued is correlated with outcomes like higher grades, retention, and engagement. Yet demographic disparities in these outcomes remain,…
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