For years, employers have been lamenting the dearth of workers able to fill their open STEM jobs. The problem is particularly acute in fast-changing fields, such as data science and information technology. 

Ramping up STEM education at community colleges has been floated as one way to address the yawning skills gap. Large technology companies — including Amazon, Google and Facebook — have bought into this idea and even helped two-year institutions develop STEM curriculum tailored to their workforce needs. 

But student outcomes at community colleges tend to lag compared to public colleges and universities. Only about one-quarter of students who enroll at a public community college to earn a credential do so from that institution within three years, according to federal data. Certain state policies could lead to more debt, and a lack of guidance from advisers and unclear transfer pathways can all stand between students and their diploma. 

Some community colleges are addressing these problems head-on. At the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ annual conference, held last month in Washington, D.C., researchers and administrators shared how they’re reshaping STEM education at their institutions to teach in-demand job skills and lead more students to graduation.

Creating diversity in STEM

Although the U.S. has a growing need for workers in fields such as health care, computer science and data science, colleges and universities are still graduating a lower share of underrepresented students in STEM. 

Just 12.6% of black students and 16.7% of Hispanic students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2016 did so in a STEM field, according to a 2019 report from the American Council on Education. That’s compared to 34.7% of Asian students and 20.5% of white students. 

Community colleges in the Central Florida STEM Alliance are hoping to change that. With the help of two federal grants, they want to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who transfer to STEM bachelor’s degree programs as well as enhance their educational experience through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation program. 

The colleges, which include Valencia and Polk State, provide an array of services to participating students, including a summer bridge program, frequent meetings with advisers, and the potential to conduct undergraduate research, an opportunity usually reserved for students at universities.  

“If they don’t do research now, in their first and second years, when they come to (a four-year) campus as juniors, what are they going to do?” John Fynn, senior program specialist at Polk State College, said during the conference. “Their research has to start right here in community college.” 

Another challenge was students lacking a sense of community.

“Our college is a commuter school,” Fynn said. “People come, and they go to class, (and) they walk out the door.” Peer-to-peer support and STEM clubs can help bridge this divide. 

The results have been promising. Research shows that Valencia College students who participated in the program between the fall of 2014 to the summer of 2017 had a graduation rate of 46.8%, compared to 24.4% of underrepresented STEM students who weren’t in the program. 

The drawbacks of excess credit policies

Ideally, transfer students amass 60 or fewer credits that all seamlessly count toward a four-year degree. But that’s not the reality for many of them. 

Students may change their minds about what they want to study or take classes they don’t need for their credential, racking up excess credits in the process and potentially delaying their graduation. That’s drawn concern from lawmakers in some states and led to policies that charge students higher tuition once they reach a certain number of credits. 

In Florida, for example, college students pay double tuition once they’ve earned 120% of the credits needed to complete their program. Texas, Wisconsin, Utah and Arizona have similar policies meant to encourage students to complete their programs on time. 

Through interviews with about 25 community college students enrolled in STEM programs, two researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, Heidi Loshbaugh and Dana Holland Zahner, have learned that excess credit policies can make it harder for students to explore different career pathways. 

That doesn’t align with the considerations of many community college students. Students may select their majors based on which institutions admit them, causing them to take prerequisites for a variety of programs. 

“If students are navigating multiple unknown pathways, depending on what they’re getting into, they’re automatically needing to accrue excess credits,” Holland Zahner said at the conference.  

The researchers’ work builds on a 2017 analysis published by the American Educational Research Association that found such policies led to increases in student debt — and not necessarily timely graduation rates. 

STEM students may also be less concerned about graduating on time than they are about getting into their program of choice. To keep their grades up, many of the students that Loshbaugh and Holland Zahner studied are taking only 12 credit hours a semester, instead of the 15 recommended to graduate in four years.  

“From these students’ point of view, that was a way to manage staying competitive and not risk failing courses,” Holland Zahner said. 

Streamlining math pathways

Students in STEM majors aren’t the only ones who can benefit from these changes. 

In the 2015-16 academic year, 72% of students at Maryland community colleges needed to take remedial classes. However, a growing body of research suggests that such courses can delay graduation and add to students’ debt levels. 

It is also expensive for schools. Annual costs for developmental education reached $75 million for Maryland’s community colleges and $14 million for institutions in the University System of Maryland in the 2011 fiscal year, according to an analysis provided to the state. 

In 2016, the University System of Maryland secured a nearly $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help overhaul remedial math courses at some of the state’s two- and four-year institutions. 

Officials created and have since implemented two new math pathways for non-STEM majors, one that prepares students for statistics and another that covers math literacy. This system allows students in liberal arts, social sciences and other related majors to sidestep algebra-intensive remedial math courses if they don’t need it.

It also makes it easier for students to know which classes they need to take. 

“You can (tell) me what you want your major to be, and I can tell you what your math class is,” said John Hamman, interim chief analytics and effectiveness officer at Montgomery College, a two-year college in Maryland. “It takes away choice at that level.”

The change appears to have paid off. Those who enrolled in one of the new math pathways were more likely to pass their final remedial classes than students who continued to take traditional remedial classes, according to a study conducted in 2017.

“We got away from just saying, ‘Well, what did we wish (students) would have learned in high school?’… to really saying, ‘If we want students to be successful, what are the skills necessary for that course?'” Hamman said. “That narrow focus was really helpful for us.”

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