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Reforms Seek to Boost College STEM Degrees
By John Freeman Posted:January 3, 2014 0 Comments
At the end of the year, several states received good news on the STEM education front. Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, and the District of Columbia each received Guided Pathways to Success grants from Complete College America (CCA) to help increase the number of students in those states who graduate on-time from college with degrees in STEM. These STEM education grants, supported by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust will support the states in developing clear academic degree maps, default class schedules, proactive advising practices, and guaranteed milestone courses over the next two years. These practices will help to address shortfalls in STEM graduates that have led to the projected STEM gap in the coming decades. The Guided Pathways to Success campaign from CCA offers a framework for today's universities and colleges to better address the needs of students so that they graduate on-time with a minimum of wasted resources.

The issues facing today's STEM college students have a very real impact on their future success. Only approximately 20 percent of Latino, African American, and Native American students interested in the STEM fields graduated with a STEM degree in five years. Further, 38 percent of students that start a STEM degree do not complete it. This attrition happens even though students understand that STEM fields possess some of the highest paying careers currently available. Instead, students flee STEM fields in search of greener (and typically easier) pastures. Leaving a STEM degree program in progress has consequences, though. The average degree-achieving students has between 13 and 21 more credit hours than they need to graduate due to changes in degree focus, issues in acquiring needed classes, and lack of student advisement. However, this decline in student interest and waste in STEM potential does not need to continue.

The CCA grants that these four states and the District of Colombia received seek to provide what CCA terms "Guided Pathways to Success". The model calls for several changes in the way students approach a degree program to provide an emphasis on completion. Colleges are encouraged to develop "meta majors," which are broad-based groups of majors such as healthcare, STEM, or humanities, so that students can slowly specialize over time into a specific major for their degree. Built into these meta-majors, students will have a set schedule of classes they must take, ensuring that every student receives the needed prerequisite or milestone courses they need at the appropriate times. This way, fewer students will waste less time languishing until the core courses they need come up again and they will be unable to avoid courses that they may consider difficult. These styles of collegiate programs encourage students to excel at a pace that will allow them to achieve a college degree in two years for an associate's degree and four years for a bachelor's degree. Florida State University adopted a similar degree mapping program, and their subsequent graduation rate raised by 12 percent.

These changes do not entirely eliminate the potential for students to follow their interests. No freshman student can fully be expected to enter a degree program, especially at a young age, and know what they want to do with complete certainty. These programs of study that CCA advocates allow for individual exploration within the confines of the individual degree pathways. Further, it calls for more proactive advising that does not allow students to change their degree programs without approval from an advisor who has explained to them the economic and educational consequences that a major change will have on their graduation timeline and future success. This sort of tougher academic love can help students who lack a grasp of the larger picture fully understand the consequences of changing majors or abandoning a set plan. These are not just scrapped pieces of paper; this advising fully shows students the consequences of their actions.

The Guided Pathways to Success are only one aspect of CCA's efforts. They also want to do away with much of college remediation in favor of more targeted support in-class, they want to match the math needs of students to their math requirements (for instance, allowing humanities students to take statistics while STEM majors stay on-track for calculus), and they encourage colleges to set their full-time loads at 15 hours per semester to ensure that students can graduate on-time. Through the pieces of this program that have been adopted by colleges and states throughout the United States, slow progress is being made to enhance student achievement. With this latest round of grants, the benefit to STEM education can only expand in the months and years to come.

Everyone may not like these reforms. Some may feel that it is depriving students of exploration opportunities and that it makes college too much of a formula. But with the vast majority of rapidly expanding careers require a college degree for even entry-level work in the STEM fields, it is the responsibility of everyone interested in education to ensure that as many students who want to graduate with a STEM degree are given the opportunity to do so. By providing them better tools, more information, and degree programs that are constructed with the modern educational world in mind, these reforms may continue to have a strong impact on student achievement and graduation rates. And even if some of these reforms have mixed results, trying new things out in an effort to achieve excellence and better STEM education is never a waste of time and money. On this, we can all agree.