April 2, 2010

Tougher grading is one reason for high STEM dropout rate

Some 50 percent of American college students who major in a STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- field drop out, and the persistence rates for women and people of color are lower than those of their white male classmates, reported researchers at a Cornell conference March 25-26.

"Reducing the dropout rate from STEM field majors may well be the single most efficient way to increase the supply of college graduates with STEM degrees," said Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI), which hosted the conference, "Analyzing the Factors That Influence Persistence Rates in STEM Field Majors."

Among the findings that researchers reported at the conference:

"A substantial grading differential exists between science and nonscience courses," said presenter Ben Ost, a third-year Cornell economics Ph.D. student. "Even students who eventually become science majors receive much higher grades in their nonscience courses than their major field courses. This gap in grading standards discourages students from pursuing and completing a science degree."

In a study that analyzed how such institutional characteristics as research expenditures and the gender or racial makeup of different departments affect students' choices to remain a STEM major, the researchers found "that institutions with more of a focus on undergraduate education seem to have higher persistence rates of STEM majors," said presenter Amanda L. Griffith, M.S. '08, Ph.D. '09, assistant professor of economics at Wake Forest University. "Overall, it appears that institutions interested in increasing persistence rates of STEM majors may want to increase their focus on undergraduate education, and that female students may be helped by an increased probability of finding a female role model or mentor in the graduate student body in their department."

In a study that looked at race and gender, Joshua Price, M.A. '07 and now a doctoral student in policy analysis and management, found similar findings: "I find that black students are more likely to persist when they enroll in introductory STEM courses that are taught by black instructors. [On the other hand,] female students are no more likely to persist when more of their STEM courses are taught by female instructors." Previous results show that having female instructors only benefits high-achieving female students, but not the average female student, he added.

The CHERI studies and conference received funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.