Systemic Change Needed To Support STEM Pathways
Opportunities Abound if Policy Addresses Demographic and Educational Change
For the last three years, I have had the opportunity to work with a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Academy of Engineering (NAE) that focused on the barriers students face as they pursue degrees and credentials in the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). The committee’s report, Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees, is now available from the National Academies Press at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/ - 21739/barriers-and-opportunities-for-2- year-and-4-year-stem-degrees.
The conclusions and recommendations listed in the report have special significance for community colleges. In fact, in 2012, 45 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to students who earned credits from a community college. Although four-year colleges have a higher percentage of students majoring in STEM disciplines than do community colleges, the numbers in community colleges have become increasingly significant. And community colleges outpaced four-year colleges in enrollment of engineering technician and computer and information sciences programs, reflecting the greater emphasis on workforce preparation in these institutions.
Many of the barriers discussed in the report are not unique to STEM, and several of them will not be surprising to community college leaders; but it is refreshing to see the attention given to community colleges and their students by the National Academies. Contrary to the often-used metaphor of a STEM pipeline, the committee instead found a complex array of pathways to a varied set of undergraduate credential outcomes. Students use two-year and four-year institutions in ways not necessarily envisioned by educators and policy makers, frequently transferring or reverse transferring between and among community colleges and four-year institutions, re-entering education after stopping out, and enrolling in multiple institutions concurrently. The makeup of the student body is not the same as it was 25 years ago; today’s students are much more likely to be from minority groups and to have family responsibilities. The committee believes that past reform efforts have not been successful in improving student outcomes because they do not recognize the changes that have occurred and they do not deal with the complex pathways that students take and the policy environments that students must navigate to earn STEM degrees.
The committee found that there is a significant opportunity to expand and diversify the nation’s STEM workforce and STEM-skilled workers in all fields, but only if there is a commitment to appropriately support students through degree completion and provide more opportunities to engage in high-quality STEM learning experiences. Improving undergraduate STEM 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 educational spectrum.
One of the most important conclusions in the report is that there is a need for institutions to align STEM programs, instructional practices, and student support programs in institutions in order to meet the needs of today’s student populations. The committee recommended that data collection systems be adjusted to collect the information to help departments and institutions better understand the nature of the student populations they serve and the pathways these students take to complete STEM degrees. It has been estimated that the cost of credits that do not advance students toward their degrees is over $7 billion per year. Not only is this extraordinarily wasteful, it is counterproductive to successful degree completion. The committee calls on accrediting agencies, states, and institutions to support increased alignment of policies and strengthened articulation agreements that can improve the transfer process for students. Today’s policies should account for the fact that many students take more than six years to graduate.
The committee also explored several factors in addition to policies that affect student persistence and success, including quality of instruction, grading policies, course sequences, learning environments, student support, co-curricular activities, family background and student selfefficacy. The report examines the role of motivation, interest, and attitude in shaping students’ trajectories in STEM, especially the transition from two- to fouryear institutions. The all-too-common practice at institutions to use introductory mathematics and science courses as “gatekeepers” with overly competitive classroom environments must change. These gatekeeper courses often serve to discourage students, especially women and minorities.
Public opinion surveys consistently find strong support for higher education and an understanding that the nation’s economic and social development — and even our national security — require an investment in education. However, there are increased calls for accountability for the success of students and for closing achievement gaps and growing concerns about the cost of higher education. It is not enough to merely give students an opportunity and then make it costly and difficult for them to succeed by leaving in place policies and practices that do not make sense in today’s environment or for today’s students. In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology cited the need to develop an adequate base of talent in STEM fields to ensure the economic strength, national security, global competitiveness, environment, and health of the United States. In response to the need, student interest in STEM credentials continues to grow, but too many students become discouraged by outdated educational policies and practices. The completion rates for STEM students continue to be lower than those for students in many other fields. Only 22 percent of students aspiring to earn a four-year STEM degree achieve their goal, and on-time completion of a degree is infrequent. Community college STEM students switch out of STEM at an even higher rate than 4-year students in STEM majors (28 percent compared to 22 percent). More of them enter college unprepared and take more developmental courses, especially in mathematics, than students at 4-year institutions.
Undergraduate credentials and degrees in many STEM fields are widely believed to cost more to deliver than degrees in other fields, and there is some evidence to support this belief. In response, some institutions have instituted differential tuition policies, resulting in higher costs for STEM students. Differential pricing is associated with declines in enrollment rates. The committee expressed a concern that such policies will have a chilling effect, especially on attracting students from underrepresented groups or lowincome students who may already have high levels of borrowing related to unmet financial need.
The committee recognized that STEM isn’t the only area of higher education that can benefit from improved student support, enhanced instructional quality, and better cross-institutional policies and practices. The report takes the view that success will be achieved when all students who are interested in STEM majors:
• Are able to make informed decisions about the best course of study for them based on interest, motivation, and career aspirations;
• Understand the variety of and potential career pathways that come with STEM degrees;
• Have an understanding of STEM content and practices;
• Do not face unreasonable barriers along their pathways that discourage them or make progress impossible;
And are aware of connections between STEM and social issues and concerns.
This report on barriers and opportunities should be used by community college administrators and faculty not only to improve institutional policies and practices, but also to build bridges of cooperation with other education institutions to initiate the discussions that can result in improved pathways for our students.
George R. Boggs is president and CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and superintendent/president emeritus of Palomar College. He is a senior professor at the Roueche Graduate Center of National American University and an adjunct faculty member at San Diego State University. He is a member of the Board on Science Education of the National Academy of Sciences. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center, and other national experts identified by the Center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or, call 512-813-2300.