The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions

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The authors used individual-level data for a single year (1988) from four highly selective universities to determine what accounts for the racial disparity in the award of science degrees. The authors ruled out differences in initial interest as an explanation because black and Hispanic enrollees to the colleges sampled had very high initial interest in science (higher than whites), despite having lower standardized test scores and high school GPAs than the other racial groups. The disparity in ultimate degree awards was the result of attrition from the science majors, which affected black students much more than any other racial category. Only 33.8% of the black students in the sample that had an initial interest in science ended up completing a degree in science, as compared to 55% for Hispanics, 61% for whites and 70% for Asians. Drop out rates from school were similarly lopsided.

The authors hypothesize that, because science courses are difficult, fast-paced, and impersonal, an individual student’s standing in terms of credentials within their institution is a very important predictor of persistence in the field. Since minority students admitted through preferential admissions programs will enter with lower pre-college credentials, they are put at a disadvantage compared to their white and Asian peers. Circumstantial evidence of this theory is displayed in Table 4, which reports aggregated data on the percent of science degrees awarded broken down by SAT-Math terciles for eleven private institutions. The table suggests that a student with an SAT-Math score below 600 would be much more likely to attain a science degree at the least elite institutions (Institutions J and K) than at the most elite (Institutions A-C). For example, a student with an SAT-Math score of 600 would be at the top of the distribution at Institution J and have a 55% chance of completing a science degree, but would be in the bottom third of their class at Institution A and have only a 15.4% chance of completing a science degree. The article goes on to assess academic support programs that seem to have proven benefits for the minorities that participate in them.

SEAPHE Comments

Elliott et al make a compelling case for the need to study how mismatch affects persistence in science at the undergraduate level, but the authors were not able to make within-race comparisons to test whether the observed racial disparity in persistence was caused by the relative strength of their incoming credentials instead of some other factor that correlates with race (stereotype threat, lack of critical mass.) The sample available to the authors was surely too small to contain enough matched minority students to do a convincing study of mismatch that could control for race and mismatch separately.  Also, the four colleges for which the authors have individual-level data are highly selective and therefore atypical; it will be interesting to see if initial interest and persistence in science for under-represented minorities have similar patterns at non-elite institutions.