The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) published their Engaged to Excel report in February 2012 calling for America to produce a million additional college graduates in STEM fields in the next decade.  Unlike the National Research Council’s Rising Above the Gathering Storm report of 2007, which made more general calls1, the PCAST report is focused and provides strategies to increase retention to STEM degrees from 40% to 50%, a change that would go most of the way to realizing the PCAST goals.

These recommendations focus on improving STEM education both at the transition from high school to college and during the first two years of college. The report acknowledges that these recommendations impact high schools and all institutions of higher education, including community colleges.

Today, 40% of all college students are in the community college system.  In Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education’s Imperatives for Change baseline report, a Missouri student who is interested in STEM and who starts college at a two-year school has only an 8% chance of earning a baccalaureate STEM degree.  

A similar student who starts college at a four-year school has a 40% chance of earning a baccalaureate STEM degree. Given the vast number of students in Missouri community colleges, a modest increase in STEM success of STEM transfers (e.g., to 20%) would yield a huge dividend to Missouri. A similar story can probably be told in other states.

There are two primary barriers that higher education erects to impede America’s ability to produce STEM professionals. The first is mathematics as a weed-out experience. The second is the Associate of Arts degree.

Historically, typical mathematics course sequences were designed by mathematics departments to support the needs of mathematics majors, physics majors, and engineering majors. But chemists also want their students to acquire mathematical maturity, so they require their students to tread the mathematics pathway through about Calculus III. Biologists tend to require their students to take precalculus, though many biology faculty believe medical schools require applicants to have Calculus I. These mathematics requirements are good for the sciences, but when you consider the numbers of students pursuing each of the science degrees, the mathematics courses are designed for the smallest disciplines. Little from chemistry and very little from biology informs mathematics training. In the past, those students who have made it through mathematics courses have been adequate performers in their degree programs. But is the mathematics curriculum as it is presently designed fit for producing 21st century scientists and mathematicians?

The second barrier that higher education erects to impede students progress toward a STEM degree occurs in the community college system. In Missouri, the Associate of Arts (AA) degree is the primary transfer degree. So professional academic advisors at Missouri community colleges advise their students to pursue that degree. A Missouri law requires that state public baccalaureate institutions transfer an AA degree in as satisfying all core liberal arts graduation requirements. This is a great deal for students!

Unfortunately, the AA degree’s bias toward arts and humanities courses makes it poor preparation for a baccalaureate STEM degree. Transfer students interested in STEM who have earned an AA degree can expect transfer shock in the form of (1) placement in STEM courses with freshman, and (2) three or four additional years of coursework to earn a STEM degree. Compare this with the humanities and business, where transfer student who have an AA can earn a degree in two to three years! It’s no wonder that success rates in STEM among community college students are so low.

This isn’t the fault of community colleges. They want their students to transfer and be successful in baccalaureate programs. Success in STEM baccalaureate programs is an added bonus! But they are saddled with obligations to too many outcomes: transfer success, re-training success, certification success, etc. This is why realization of the PCAST goals requires cooperation between so many stakeholders.

To reduce attrition in STEM degree programs within four-year programs and within the two-to-four year transition, institutions in geographic proximity should coordinate their efforts. Two-year schools should align their STEM course outcomes to meet the needs of targeted transfer institutions, and those targeted institutions must be aware of the STEM capacities of their two-year school partners. They should use that knowledge to support STEM transfer students through the transition to their four-year program and through to graduation with a STEM baccalaureate degree.

The good news is that many people are developing ways to address the challenge of retaining students to STEM through their first two years (a.k.a., the barrier years) and through the transition from two-year school to four-year school. We need to support those efforts and increase their visibility to the rest of the higher education community.

If we do, everyone benefits. If we don’t, everyone loses.

The report also set off a firestorm of activity in Washington, DC, resulting in many initiatives and the America Competes Act of 2007 ( HR 2272) and its subsequent renewal, the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010 (HR 5116). ↩