STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Initiatives

By Betsy Prueter

The National Center for Education Statistics has released a study looking at undergraduate student attrition in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Specifically, the study looked at student movements in and out of the STEM fields between 2003 and 2009. In the study, student attrition was defined as undergraduate students declaring a STEM major and subsequently switching into a non-STEM field or leaving postsecondary education without earning degree or certificate. The study aimed to explore STEM attrition rates compared to other fields, the fields into which STEM majors move, and various student characteristics of those leaving and persisting in STEM.

Among the report’s findings: ​- Among 2003-2004 beginning bachelor’s degree students, 28 percent entered a STEM major at some point between 2003 and 2009. Among beginning associate’s degree students, 20 percent entered a STEM field in that time period. – Among beginning bachelor’s degree students who entered a STEM field between 2003 and 2009, 48 percent had left the STEM fields by 2009. Among beginning associate’s degree students who entered a STEM field between 2003 and 2009, the STEM attrition rate rose to 69 percent. – Attrition rates were similarly high in non-STEM fields. Among beginning bachelor’s degree students who entered the education field between 2003 and 2009, 62 percent had left the education field by 2009. Among beginning bachelor’s degree students who entered a health sciences field or humanities field between 2003 and 2009, by 2009 58 percent had left health sciences and 56 percent had left the humanities. Similarly high attrition at the associate’s degree level was also seen in education (70%) and humanities (72%). – Among students who left the STEM field for another field, 22 percent of bachelor’s students and 16 percent of associate’s degree students ended up pursuing a business degree, and 12 percent of bachelor’s students and 20 percent of associate’s degree students ended up pursuing a health sciences degree.