Universities share best practices to retain STEM students

Best practices that institutions of higher education can use to attract, retain, and support students within STEM fields.


Developing new minds ready to take on careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) may be a national priority in the U.S., but if the current trends in higher education continue, that goal could be pretty difficult to achieve. According to National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report, about 28 percent of bachelor’s degree students and 20 percent of associate’s degree students entered a STEM field (i.e., they chose a STEM-related major) at some point within six years of entering postsecondary education in 2003−04.

“Many of these STEM entrants left STEM several years later by either changing majors or leaving college without completing a degree or certificate,” the NCES reports. “A total of 48 percent of bachelor’s degree students and 69 percent of associate’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 had left these fields by spring 2009. Roughly one-half of these leavers switched their majors to non-STEM fields, and the rest of them left STEM fields by exiting college before earning a degree or certificate.”

The fact that nearly half of the nation’s STEM career candidates either switch majors or leave school entirely before graduation is alarming, particularly since many of those students have the “highest SAT scores, highest AP science scores, and go to the most prestigious colleges and universities,” stated Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), in a recent eCampusNews article. In the piece, Hrabowski points to the typical lineup of “weed-out” classes as one of the primary drivers of the mass exodus from STEM majors. In other words, survival of the fittest may not actually be the best educational approach in fields where even the brightest, most industrious students are challenged to their very cores.

“Students come into college interested in STEM, but [schools] do a lot of things to push them away,” asserts Bill LaCourse, UMBC’s dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. “Traditional classroom lectures, for instance, are uninspiring – particularly for brighter students who have to sit in a lecture hall of 400 students trying to stay engaged and on point with subjects that can be especially challenging.”

(Next page: How to STEM the flow)

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