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Racial Disparities in STEM Graduation Rates

A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found Black and Latino students are more likely to leave STEM majors than their White peers.

When Black and Latino students enter college, they have the same level of interest in STEM majors compared to their White peers, but the rates of switching majors or leaving college are much higher for Black and Latino students. A new study from University of Texas at Austin researchers, published in the Educational Researcher journal, looked into the trends of STEM graduation rates through a racial lens using data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center of Education Statistics.

The study found 19 percent of White students declare a STEM major, compared to 20 percent of Latino students and 18 percent of Black students. However, 58 percent of White students who declare a STEM major earn a degree in the field — compared to 43 percent of Latino students and 34 percent of Black students.

stem graduation rates

These trends in STEM graduation rates were analyzed by looking at socioeconomic factors such as measures of parental education, family income, place of birth and gender. Student ages and full-time or part-time employment while in college were also considered in the study.

"In STEM majors, Black and Latino youth who were from the same family backgrounds as White youth were still more likely to exit a STEM major and leave college without a degree. When you look at other fields, looking at Black and Latino youth who have the same family background as White youth, then they did not leave college at a higher rate," said Catherine Riegle-Crumb, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin's Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

For degrees in business and social science, Black, Latino and White students all have comparable rates of switching majors or leaving school. When it comes to humanities degrees, the data shows that Black students are less likely to switch than White students, but both Black and Latino students are more likely to leave school without a humanities degree.

The study also considered prior academic preparation such as SAT scores, high school GPA, advanced math course-taking and science course-taking, but Riegle-Crumb said the rates of Black and Latino students exiting STEM majors persisted, regardless of family backgrounds or academic preparation.

"Even if a Black or Latino student had the same family resources, came from the same kinds of families and had the same high school background, they were still more likely than White students with those characteristics to leave college without a degree," said Riegle-Crumb. "In STEM fields, there is still something about race that is trumping social class background and is making it worse."

In terms of future research, Riegle-Crumb said she hopes that there is more work done to study what is in happening in STEM classrooms during the college years compared to business or social science classrooms. "In recent years, there has been a proliferation of very promising efforts to make STEM college classrooms more inclusive and more engaging for all students, for example, by using less direct instruction and incorporating more research opportunities and mentoring; however, we need a better sense of whether and how such efforts are successful in reaching minority youth in STEM fields across the country," according to the study.

A full copy of the article is available for purchase here.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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