Why Universities Are Bleeding Their STEM Undergrad Enrollment

“Look Left, look right, one of you won’t graduate.”

Many engineering graduates were told the same thing walking into their first undergraduate class: “Look to the person on your left. Look to the person on your right. One of you won’t graduate.” Scare tactic or not, a recent RTI International study suggests this statistic holds up.

The study followed STEM students pursuing their bachelor’s degree between 2003 and 2009. They found that about a third of high performing students transferred out of their STEM fields before the study completed.

“In light of the nation’s need to build a strong STEM workforce to compete in the global economy, it is important to understand why college students are leaving STEM majors,” said Xianglei Chen, Research Education Analyst at RTI. “Our results indicate that students’ intensity of STEM coursework in the first year and their performance in STEM courses may have played an important role in their decision to switch majors.”

The study looked at high and low performing students and tracked their attrition over a six-year period. The high performing students were separated due to their consistently higher grades during their enrollment. Based on transcripts, the study also looked at how a student’s participation and performance in courses affected their decision to stay in STEM.

The results show that the high performing students that left STEM were likely to switch majors, whereas low performing students would frequently drop out of school all together. Additionally, the study suggests that students that gain momentum early in their STEM education are more likely to remain in STEM.

“An increasing portion [of] students who leave STEM majors are top performers who might have made valuable additions to the STEM workforce had they stayed in STEM fields,” Chen said. “Results from this study will be useful for guiding policies to ensure that more students remain in STEM fields.”

For myself, my undergraduate school skipped the “you will all drop out talk” in favor of a more positive speech. My professor mentioned that though not everyone will graduate at the same time, most of us will see it to the end. Perhaps it was this positive outlook, as the research suggests, that kept the attrition low.

Or perhaps it was the good vibes from the school’s focus on co-op placements. These placements would entice young engineers with real world experience, and they would often pay enough money to keep students out of debt—eliminating some of the financial factors.

Either way it worked, and I suggest other schools take notice.

What do you think? What kept you in your engineering education? If you are a student, what is guiding your decisions to remain in STEM or to make the change? How can we reduce the dropout rate? Comment below.

Source RTI International.

Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at Engineering.com, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.