Strong High School Academics, Declaring STEM Major Early Give College Students the Greatest Boost in Likelihood of STEM Degree Completion

A study by NYU Steinhardt’s Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes examines the factors that contribute to college students majoring and earning degrees in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field.

Published in the Journal of College Student Retention, the research highlights the importance of high school academics and declaring a STEM major early in a student’s college career on STEM degree completion.

“The final years of high school and first year of college appear most important for strengthening pathways of college students into STEM fields,” said Gregory Wolniak, director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s author.

After adjusting for students’ academic differences prior to college, female students had significantly lower odds of declaring a STEM major during their freshman year of college, while Black students and students with English as a second language were more likely to declare a STEM major early in their college experience. During high school, students with strong academic achievements (especially advanced math coursework) were more likely to declare a STEM major during freshman year.

These findings are critical for understanding the production of STEM graduates given the result that declaring a STEM major early in a student’s college career emerged as an important predictor of degree completion.

What’s more, for students less likely to enter a STEM field – including female and Hispanic students, and students with lower high school achievement – declaring a STEM major in the first year of college appeared as an especially strong positive determinant of degree completion.

“This finding suggests that students who may not fit the traditional profile of a STEM student particularly benefit from receiving information on and encouragement toward STEM programs of study during their first year of college,” said Wolniak.

Drawing upon data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, the study looked at approximately 7,330 students enrolling in a four-year college during the 2003-2004 academic year, and examined the influence of demographic, socioeconomic, and academic factors on students choosing STEM majors and completing degrees within six years of entering college.

“The study illustrates that the majority of STEM graduates recognized and acted on their interest in a STEM education very early in their college experience, and to expand the number of college graduates in STEM fields requires a concerted effort to attract traditionally underrepresented students into STEM fields during their first year of college,” Wolniak said.

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