The number of STEM majors as an overall percentage of the undergraduate population has fallen substantially over the last several decades (National Board of Sciences 2010). A major factor driving this decline is the failure of entering STEM majors to complete their degrees. Nationwide, six-year degree completion rates in STEM majors are less than 40% (PCAST 2012), raising concerns for the ability for U.S. to maintain its competitiveness in science and technology fields (Hira, 2010). Low rates of STEM persistence are particularly troubling among women and underrepresented minority students (URM students include African American, Latino/a, Native American, and Pacific Islander). While women and URM students account for nearly 70% of college enrollment, they are underrepresented among STEM degree holders because they leave STEM majors at substantially higher rates than their non-URM male peers (PCAST 2012).
URM students entering U.S. colleges are just as likely as their non-URM peers to aspire to complete a STEM major (Crisp et al., 2009; Koenig 2009; Hurtado et al., 2010). Yet in 2009, 37.5% of White and Asian American students completed their STEM degrees after five years, while the average completion rates for Black/African American, Latino/a, and Native American students were 22.1%, 18.4% and 18.8% respectively (Hurtado et al. 2010). This persistence gap results in fewer URM students entering the STEM workforce. Currently, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans account for only 7.1% of the biological, biomedical and life science workforce despite accounting for 27.9% of the total U.S. population (NAS, 2011; NSF 2012, Table 96).
Factors that Contribute to URM Persistence in STEM
Multiple factors contribute to the high attrition of underrepresented students in STEM majors. Socially, many of these students face challenges transitioning to college (Cooper et al. 2005; Museus and Quaye 2009), in part because they are more likely to be first-generation college students (Choy et al. 2000; McCarron and Inkelas 2006; Terenzini et al. 1996). These challenges can be further exacerbated by perceptions of an unwelcoming academic culture in science and math departments (Beasley and Fischer 2012; Ong et al. 2011). Academically, many students struggle to complete introductory science and math courses based on insufficient preparation in high school (Chang, et al. 2014; Elliot et al. 1996) and challenges staying engaged in large lecture-style courses with limited opportunities for interaction with professors (Gasiewski et al. 2012; Johnson 2007; Labov 2004).
Based on social and cognitive psychology, Graham et al. (2013) proposed a persistence framework focused on increasing confidence and motivation of STEM majors. They highlighted early research experience, active learning in introductory courses, and learning communities as critical components for effective learning and feeling like a scientist. Indeed, academic support programs that employ aspects of this model and aim to support underrepresented students in STEM fields, such as the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at University of Maryland–Baltimore County (Stolle-McAllister et al. 2011) and the Biology Scholars Program at U.C. Berkeley (Matsui et al. 2003), can have a major impact, increasing persistence rates of URM students in STEM majors to levels two to four times the national average (Summers and Hrabowski, 2006).
Studies of STEM academic support programs typically measure program effectiveness by comparing the persistence rates of participants to university or national averages (e.g. White et al. , 2008). While persistence is a critical metric, it can be difficult to determine what factors contribute to STEM retention. Indeed, few studies employ control groups to more fully explore the variables promoting persistence of underrepresented students in undergraduate STEM majors. This study utilizes a matched comparison group design and propensity score matching to examine the academic achievement and persistence of undergraduate students enrolled in an academic support program for STEM majors at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Specifically, we use a variety of metrics of academic achievement to determine whether students in PEERS achieve the same level of academic success as non-PEERS students, and how this achievement impacts their commitment to and persistence in STEM majors.
URM Persistence at UCLA
UCLA is a highly selective research university in Southern California. The overall five-year degree completion rate for STEM students at UCLA is 65%, much higher than the national average. Yet, significant disparities exist between URM and non-URM students. For example, registrar data shows that for students entering UCLA with a declared STEM major between 2004 and 2006, nearly 70% of non-URM students completed their STEM degree in five years, while the degree completion rate of URM students in STEM was only 39%.
Like many U.S. universities, life and physical science degree programs at UCLA are characterized by a highly regimented curriculum of core introductory math and science courses. Successful completion of these “gatekeeper” courses during the first two years enables students to move on to upper division courses and ultimately graduate in a timely manner. However, these same math and science courses can be a major impediment to persistence of underrepresented students in STEM majors (Fries-Britt et al. 2010; Gasiewski et al. 2012). As confidence and motivation are critical for STEM persistence (Graham et al. 2013), it follows that increasing success in the introductory core science curriculum is an essential component of encouraging higher levels of persistence among STEM majors.
The Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences (PEERS) is a two-year, cohort-based academic support program designed to promote persistence of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in life and physical science majors at UCLA. In this study, we compare the academic performance of students in the PEERS program to a matched comparison group of non-PEERS students to assess the impact of PEERS on academic success and persistence in science majors during the first two years at UCLA. Specifically, we examine students’: (1) grades in select lower division chemistry and math courses, (2) total number of science courses completed, (3) academic performance as measured by cumulative grade point average (GPA), and (4) persistence in science and math majors.
The PEERS Program
The PEERS program at UCLA was established in 2003 to address the discrepancy between success and persistence of life and physical science majors from underrepresented backgrounds. Based on research related to students’ first-year experience (Barefoot 2000; Reason et al. 2006; Tinto 2005), programmatic elements include: (1) academic and career seminars, (2) holistic academic counseling, (3) research seminars, and (4) Treisman (1992) style collaborative learning workshops for the first year of math, chemistry and physics courses. Combined, these activities provide students with encouragement, academic preparation, and positive peer group motivation, factors each shown to encourage persistence in science and math majors (Barlow and Villarejo 2004; Bonous-Hammarth 2000; Chang et al. 2011; Peterfreund et al. 2007; Walton and Cohen, 2011). Additionally, PEERS socializes students to the roles and expectations of the institution and their academic major, factors that are also positively correlated with persistence (Chang et al. 2008).
Toven-Lindsey, B., Levi-Fitzgerald, M., Barber, P. and T. Hasson (2015) Increasing persistence of undergraduate science majors: A model for institutional support of underrepresented students. CBE – Life Sci. Educ. 14: 1-12.