Inequality in college STEM education. Study finds Black and Latinx students leave STEM majors at higher rates.

By Christian Bazán
African American student studying in an auditorium

Recent national studies indicate that black and Latinx students are entering STEM post-secondary education at a rate comparable to that of their white peers, yet STEM fields remain predominantly white and male. Little research has been conducted to understand the completion patterns seen in STEM degrees and whether they are consistent with other fields for black and Latinx students.

A new study featured in Educational Researcher explores this question. The study is authored by Catherine Riegle-Crumb, associate professor in The University of Texas at Austin's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, her colleague Yasmiyn Irizarry, an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and Barbara King, assistant professor of teaching and learning at Florida International University.

The authors examined three key questions. First, are black and Latinx students more likely to leave STEM fields than their white counterparts, either by switching fields or leaving college without a degree? Second, to what extent do racial/ethnic gaps in STEM persistence remain when other factors like social background and high school preparation are examined? Third, are these gaps in STEM persistence unique or more pronounced than in other fields?

The study found that STEM is the only field where black and Latinx students are significantly more likely than their white peers to switch and earn a degree in another field. This difference can be explained by social background for Latinx students, which included a variety of measures such as parental education, family income, place of birth (the U.S. vs. not), student age, gender, and full-time vs. part-time employment. However, for black students results remained disproportionate even after differences in high school preparation were also accounted for. Additionally, there is a high probability for both these minorities to exit from college without a degree from STEM majors which is not explained by social background or high school preparation.

This means that minority students are exiting from STEM degrees at significantly greater rates to their white peers. However, we don’t yet know the causes of this pattern - only that it isn’t explained by social background or differences in high school preparation.

Careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are esteemed by society, with studies showing lifetime earnings to be consistently higher than in other fields. Earning a STEM degree is the normal prerequisite for getting a STEM job and while not all people who earn a STEM degree enter STEM fields, previous studies have shown that they have higher subsequent earnings than those with non-STEM degrees.

Riegle-Crumb and her fellow authors would next like to investigate the factors that deter minority students from STEM degrees, in particular by examining classroom culture and comparing different STEM fields to each other. They note that while there have been significant recent efforts to improve the engagement of all students through a variety of methods, there is little clarity on which of these efforts are proving successful in reaching minority students in STEM fields nationally.

This study was featured in Educational Researcher. For additional information, see articles on this study from Higher Education and the Washington Post.

About the author:

Author of the news post picture

Christian Bazán is the Communications Coordinator for the STEM Center.