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The Important Role of Small Colleges in STEM Education
By Kaysto Posted:March 25, 2014 0 Comments
When most people think of centers of higher education that excel in pushing students to success in the STEM fields, they tend to think of large institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of California, Berkeley. However, they may not be the best answer to America's STEM needs. A recent report released by The Council of Independent Colleges has raised new questions about what the best setting is for STEM education success. The report finds that students who attended a smaller, private college not only completed their STEM degree more quickly, but were more likely to pursue doctoral degrees in a shorter time frame than their peers who went to larger private and public universities.

The report, entitled "Strengthening the STEM Pipeline: The Contribution of Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges" succinctly shows the benefits that STEM education provided at these schools has on student achievement. Only 31.1 percent of students in public non-doctoral institutions achieved a bachelor's degree in STEM field after starting a STEM education program. However, private nonprofit, non-doctoral institutions had a success rate of 58.6 percent. Not only are private nonprofit colleges more adept at getting students to graduate, they are also more successful in getting those students to graduate in a timely manner. Nearly 80 percent of all STEM degree seekers at a private nonprofit college graduated with a STEM bachelor's in 48 months or less. This is compared to only 50 percent at a public doctoral school and 34 percent and a public non-doctoral college. The report further points out that even though flagship public schools may pump out a larger number of students bound for the STEM field on a raw basis, private nonprofits universities are just as likely or more likely to have students pursue a PhD in their STEM field within five years of graduation. This holds true across STEM fields as diverse as chemistry, biology, computer science, and physics. In short, though public schools often get all of the attention and press, small and medium-sized private colleges are playing an integral role in preparing tomorrow's STEM workforce. In fact, due to their success in getting students through the education pipeline quickly and with a lower attrition rate, they may begin to play a larger role over the coming years.

In addition to the benefits that small private colleges provide, public community colleges also play a strong role in preparing tomorrow's STEM workforce. Many STEM careers only require an associate's degree, and these colleges have done superb work across the United States in shifting their goals to provide more experiential learning, which in turn provides students the opportunity to take on these roles. In addition to this primary function, these institutions serve a dual purpose, often unsung, that provides great benefits to STEM education. First, community colleges offer a college education to a wide variety of students from various backgrounds. Due to flexible scheduling, lower costs, and their geographic ubiquity, community colleges can serve recent high school seniors, nontraditional students, students who work, and many others with a quality STEM education. In a larger institution, such students can easily fall through the cracks in the bureaucracy. Second, and perhaps more importantly, community colleges offer students the chance to transition more successfully into larger institutions. By learning basic college skills in a more nurturing environment, students who attend smaller community colleges before transferring to larger institutions have better study skills, clearer ideas of what they want to achieve, and are more likely to graduate on time with their degrees. In short, small schools, no matter their funding source, are great partners in providing STEM education to continuing generations of American students.

There are parts of STEM education that are quickly becoming uncontroversial, as they are seen as universally necessary. For instance, in Wisconsin, even though the Common Core standards are under debate, everyone endorses the STEM components they contain. But there are still areas that need improvement in consensus. A recent New York state scholarship programs allows students to use $8 million of state money to pursue STEM degrees at both the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY). A recent op-ed by Gary A. Olson, Ph.D., the President of Daemen College, pointed out that all other scholarship programs in the state could also be applied to private colleges, and that over half of the biological sciences, allied health, and mathematics bachelor's degrees awarded in the state were awarded by non-profit, private institutions. Given what the Council of Independent Colleges report showed, it would seem to indicate that opening up this and similar scholarship programs would be in the interest of the STEM education goals of states across the country.

In addition to including smaller colleges in discussions of STEM education, educators must also address the bias that larger institutions have towards them. With massive campuses, large alumni networks, and attention-grabbing sports teams, large universities may seem to many high school students like the best places to attend if they want a bright future in the STEM world. However, many schools, like the University of Dallas, Swarthmore College, Kenyon College, Oberlin College, and dozens more have bright reputations for producing successful STEM workers, despite the fact that they have fewer than 3,500 students enrolled. Because of this, it is up to all parents, educators, and policymakers to make sure students in the STEM pipeline understand that the best STEM College is not necessarily the biggest; it is the one that provides the best fit for a student and their future aspirations. That is what leads to success.