Who Quits STEM Majors?

By Jacqueline Jung

The modern workforce is becoming increasingly science and technology based. Improving the selection and retention of undergraduate students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors is, therefore, increasingly important. Attrition rates are high: more than 1 in 4 students leave college before completing their degree, and it is even more difficult to attract and retain students in STEM majors. This indicates both failure in selection and in identifying students who are at risk for attrition. To solve this problem, we must find or develop strong predictors of academic success at the post-secondary level to reduce the number of students who leave before getting a degree and increase the number of students who complete their degree, particularly students considering STEM majors and careers. Traditional predictors of academic performance include GPA and aptitude/intelligence tests, such as the SAT or ACT. More recently, efforts have been made to include measures of personality, motivational traits and skills, vocational interests, and other psychological measures as predictors of academic success. Although it may be controversial to use these measures for admissions given that they are self-reported, they could be used post-matriculation for identifying those students who are at-risk for attrition either from a STEM major or from the university as a whole.

A 2013 study (Ackerman, Kanfer, & Beier) followed 589 college students from their admission to the school to their graduation or attrition. First, the authors defined five combinations of traits, motivations, and self-perceptions that were common among the students: Math/Science Self-Concept (e.g., you prefer and feel confident in your abilities regarding math and science), Mastery/Organization (e.g., you want to learn, you are organized and conscientious), Openness and Verbal Self-Concept (e.g., you feel confident in your verbal abilities and you are open to new experiences and critical thinking), Anxiety in Achievement Contexts (e.g., you are neurotic and have high levels of test anxiety), and Extroversion/Sociability (e.g., you want status and an easy life, you prefer and feel confident in social contexts). Using these five combinations of traits (i.e., trait complexes), academic records, high school GPA, SAT scores, and AP exam scores, the authors predicted student (1) academic success (measured by GPA), (2) STEM major persistence (STEM-persisters were those whose initial and final major was STEM, whereas STEM-leavers were those whose initial major was STEM, but final was not), and (3) attrition (students who did not complete a degree within eight years of matriculation) better than traditional measures alone would.

Interestingly, women scored lower than men in the Math/Science Self-Concept trait-complex, but scored higher than men in Mastery/Organization, Anxiety in Achievement, and Extroversion/Sociability trait-complexes. An equal proportion (17.6%) of men and women who started college in a STEM major left STEM, yet the men who left the STEM major had high Math/Science Self-Concepts whereas the women had low Math/Science Self-Concepts, similar to those women who were never in a STEM major. Alternatively, the men who left STEM majors were low in Mastery/Organization, lower than even those men who were never in a STEM major. This may suggest that men and women quit STEM for different reasons: women who leave do not feel confident in their STEM abilities and men who leave lack the organizational skills necessary to succeed.

Certainly, more research is needed to really understand why students may leave their chosen educational paths, but this study alone provides some insight into what might be happening. Schools or organizations interested in increasing the pool of talented candidates in STEM majors may work on interventions that increase STEM self-concept, particularly for women, and improve organizational skills and self-regulation, particularly for men.

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