One-third of college STEM majors switch fields by graduation

Poor performance in STEM courses, low focus on STEM coursework in first year contributes to students switching majors


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— About a quarter of high performing students who began pursuing a bachelor's degree between 2003 and 2009 declared a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) major; however, nearly a third of these students had transferred out of STEM fields by spring 2009, according to a study by RTI International. 

The study, recently published in the Journal of Technology and Science Education, examined the scope and potential reasons why high-achieving students leave STEM majors. 

"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, Ph.D., 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."

Using data from the 2004/09 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, the study tracked a cohort of beginning bachelor's degree students over six years, providing a close look at STEM attrition  among a group of high-performing college students. The study defined high-performing college students as those who demonstrate consistent, high-level performance during their six-year college enrollment. Researchers also used transcript data to examine STEM courses taken and how participation and performance in those courses were associated with students' leaving STEM majors. 

Researchers found that low-performing students were more likely to leave STEM fields by dropping out of college, while high-performing students were more prone to leave STEM fields by switching majors. The study suggests that missing the opportunity to build early momentum in STEM coursework may lead students to abandon pursuing a STEM degree later on, and poor performance in STEM courses may discourage students to stick to STEM fields. 

"An increasing portion 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."