Whose STEM 'completion agenda?'

Admission to college should be seen as an institutional expectation that the student will indeed earn a degree in 4-6 years.  When this promise goes unfulfilled, we ask "what went wrong?" 

Several recent studies and reports have converged on something called the "completion agenda" -- increasing efforts by colleges and universities to retain and graduate students who "complete" the baccalaureate.  Like so many issues in U.S. higher education, this one has facets that challenge some students, faculty, and administrators more than others.

Provosts reportedly fear that the push for completions discourages admission of "at risk" students.  As state and federal officials, foundations, and others focus more on retention and completion, what also must ponder the other end of the continuum -- student access to postsecondary education? 

Betting on the success of those who can afford to attend or who are better prepared -- a form of "cumulative advantage" -- leaves many at-risk students behind.

But what does the completion agenda mean particularly for STEM?  Retention has long been recognized as the bane of STEM educators' existence, with freshman "gatekeeper" courses an obstacle facing even those who successfully hurdle the financial barrier to admission. In STEM, the impact is profound on women, racial and ethnic minorities, and low-income students. Once in, they tend to be quickly lost.

Last month the President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) observed that significant numbers of students inclined to study mathematics and science abandon these fields within the first two years due to uninspiring introductory courses and an unwelcoming environment.  Students vote with their feet.  Why not?  This report, however, is couched in terms of "producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in" STEM.  Is this the goal of the STEM completion agenda?

From a policy perspective, as others before PCAST have found, retaining more STEM majors is the most expedient and economical way to increase the numbers of STEM professionals at all degree levels.  In the 1990s, both Tobias (They're Not Dumb, They're Different, 1990) and Seymour and Hewitt (Talking about Leaving, 1997) examined the reasons STEM-inclined students exited those majors prematurely. 

In 2004, a public-private partnership known as BEST—Building Engineering and Science Talent -- advocated building "a bridge for all" students to graduate study and the workforce. That report, based on a review of 124 university-based STEM undergraduate intervention programs, identified only a dozen as "exemplary" or "promising."  It also gleaned a set of prescriptive actions -- not a menu -- that taken together achieved today's completion agenda. 

One additional action recognized almost a decade later by PCAST is the creation of new paths to a science degree through both two- and four-year institutions.  AAAS and EducationCounsel have just generalized this approach to include graduate education and postdoctoral training in something called the "Smart Grid".

Facilitating collaboration between institutions, especially two-year colleges and minority-serving institutions where students of color disproportionately enroll (again, access and affordability go hand-in-hand) and four-year colleges and universities where they will complete their STEM degree, would seem a no-brainer.  Create the pathways so students can see where they might head with STEM skills and credentials. 

As the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce has amply documented, one in three U.S. jobs will require STEM skills by the end of this decade.  Most of those positions, however, will not even be classified as "STEM jobs."

Once again, questions loom -- and not just for provosts. Who will participate in the science and engineering workforce?   Where will they be educated?  How will federal, state, and institutional policies facilitate or impede academic progression and completion?  How many will be "invited" into a STEM career or discouraged for reasons unrelated to their interests, preparation, or aspiration?  This is the real "completion agenda."

Related Links:

Inside HigherEd: Mixed Grades: A Survey of Provosts

University of Rhode Island: The Matthew Effect in Science (PDF)

Diverse Blog: It Just Doesn't Add Up: Barriers to STEM Higher Education

The Chronicle: White House and Universities Pledge Greater Effort to Retain Science Students