Attrition from Science

Minority interest and persistence in the hard sciences is highly relevant to a fully integrated society, but racial preferences used at the undergraduate level plausibly cause mismatch effects. Because of the rigid structure and competitive nature of engineering and physical science programs, students that intend to major in science could find themselves at a disadvantage if they enrolled at a school where their incoming credentials are weak relative to the rest of their class, and might drift to other majors or out of school altogether. If so, disproportionate numbers of minorities will get bumped off the science track.

Project SEAPHE has conducted preliminary research on the effects of mismatch on persistence using data from the University of California, the University of Michigan, and a number of other sources. Prof. Richard Sander is presenting these findings at a September 12th hearing of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Prior research on the subject of minority representation in the sciences has found that there is no disparity between underrepresented minorities and whites in terms of initial intention to major in the hard sciences at the point they apply for college.

Interest in Science Among High School Seniors

Comparison group Proportion of students of each race intending to major in science
White Black Hispanic Asian
University of California - average 34.7% 37.5% 52.6%
University of California - 2004-06 37.3% 40.5% 57.1%
HERI-CIRP data (Astin et al.) 27.3% 34.2% 35.7% 52.6%
Rogers Elliott data (4 elite institutions) 41.4% 44.2% 44.0% 55.0%

However, minority representation in the hard sciences dwindles at every stage after college enrollment. Black and Latino attrition from science during college is much greater than that of whites and Asians, and the gap only widens when looking at continuation to graduate school, and research and teaching.

The literature below provide some background on the subject.

Undergraduate Science Education: The Impact of Different College Environments on the Educational Pipeline in the Sciences

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Astin and Astin use longitudinal data on over 27,000 college students at 388 colleges to conduct a comprehensive study on an array of factors that affect interest and persistence in science. The authors find that entering academic credentials (particularly in math) are consistently the strongest predictor of students’ persistence in science. Credentials are also good predictors of initial interest in science. Pre-admissions credentials are also the strongest predictors of performance on the GRE and MCAT tests, suggesting that post-graduate performance is largely constrained by pre-collegiate credentials. more...

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. more...