Pathways of opportunity in STEM: Comparative investigation of degree attainment across different demographic groups at a large research institution

Costello et al. / International Journal of STEM Education / June 2023

The authors used an opportunity gap framework to analyze the pathways through which students enter into and depart from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees in an R1 higher education institution and to better understand the demographic disparities in STEM degree attainment. The authors found disparities in 6-year STEM graduation rates on the basis of gender, race/ethnicity, and parental education level. Using mediation analysis, they showed that the gender disparity in STEM degree attainment was explained by disparities in aspiration: a gender disparity in students’ intent to pursue STEM at the beginning of college; women were less likely to graduate with STEM degrees because they were less likely to intend to pursue STEM degrees. However, disparities in STEM degree attainment across race/ethnicities and parental education level were largely explained by disparities in attrition: persons excluded because of their ethnicity or race (PEERs) and first generation students were less likely to graduate with STEM degrees due to fewer academic opportunities provided prior to college (estimated using college entrance exams scores) and more academic challenges during college as captured by first year GPAs. The authors' results reinforce the idea that patterns of departure from STEM pathways differ among marginalized groups. To promote and retain students in STEM, it is critical that the field understand these differing patterns and consider structural efforts to support students at different stages in their education.