A new report published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis investigates how access to advanced high school math and science courses affects postsecondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) enrollment and degree attainment, and how this relationship between the two differs by race and gender.
The researchers use data from the Missouri Department of Higher Education to track fourteen cohorts of students, numbering more than 14,000 between 1996 and 2009. They obtained the student records of full-time, first-time graduates from a Missouri public high school who matriculated to a four-year Missouri public university within two years of completing high school. For their analysis, they classify students’ intended and final majors as either STEM or not to examine initial enrollment and degree attainment rates in STEM over time.
The number of students who declared a STEM major upon college entry increased by 20 percent, or 5 percentage points, and this growth was relatively consistent across racial and ethnic groups. Attainment of a STEM degree increased by about 23 percent overall, but black and Hispanic students experienced an alarming 13 percent drop during the study period.
When examining access to high school STEM courses in the state, the researchers calculated the number of math and science courses available per one hundred students and saw only a slight uptick near the end of the 1996–2009 period, for an overall growth of about 6 percent, primarily driven by an increase in advanced math offerings.
Using regression analysis, the researchers find no evidence of a correlation between STEM course access and college matriculation rates overall. But when looking by subgroup, postsecondary initial enrollment for white and male students are somewhat more responsive to changes in access to high school STEM courses, relative to black, Hispanic, and female students, although all of these effects are small. This suggests that expanding STEM course access in high school could actually widen postsecondary STEM enrollment gaps by race and gender.
Counter to the common belief that a lack of access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses is a barrier to entry and success in those subjects in college, this study finds that changes in course access do not causally affect postsecondary STEM outcomes. Increasing access to these courses has—at best—a neutral effect on STEM postsecondary outcomes. However, the study doesn’t imply that we should stop all efforts to promote such coursework or interest in high school. It just means that if our goal is to have students pursue a career in STEM, then we perhaps should focus our energy away from increasing course offerings and more towards strengthening professional development for STEM teachers, improving STEM facilities and instructional materials, or increasing access to, and support for obtaining, internships and apprenticeships in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Because broad efforts to expand access to these courses in high schools may exacerbate existing race- and gender-based imbalances in the STEM field, policymakers and district and school administrators should take care as they try to push more students to pursue STEM and consider investing in higher quality existing resources, rather than a higher quantity.
SOURCE: Rajeev et al., “High School Course Access and Postsecondary STEM Enrollment and Attainment,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (September 2019).