Why Are Black Students More Likely Than Whites to Leave STEM Majors in College?

A new study led by Catherine Riegle-Crumb, an associate professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin, shows that young Black students have a high interest in STEM fields but switch to other majors or dropout of STEM degree programs at significantly higher rates than other students.

Using date from the U.S. Department of education from 5,600 students who began college in the 2003-04 academic year, researchers found that 19 percent of White students and 18 percent of Black students planned to pursue degrees in STEM fields. But two of every five Black student eventually switched majors compared to only 29 percent of White students who started out in STEM. More than a quarter of Black students who began college pursuing a STEM degree, dropped out of college altogether without earning a degree. This was double the dropout rate of White students who started out in STEM.

The authors note that Black students in STEM classrooms “are subjected to specific stereotypes about their presumed inferior cognitive and mathematical ability” and in these classrooms “students must essentially prove that they deserve to stay.”

The authors also note that Black “students often place a high value on using their education as a way of giving back and improving the lives of others and may perceive that a sense of social responsibility is incompatible with STEM fields, shaping their decisions to depart.”

Dr. Riegle-Crumb joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in 2006 and was promoted to associate professor in 2013. She is a graduate of Texas A&M University, where she majored in sociology. Dr. Riegle-Crumb earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Texas.

The full study, “Does STEM Stand Out? Examining Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Persistence Across Postsecondary Fields,” was published on the website of the journal Educational Researcher. It may be accessed here.

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