Students like STEM but don’t succeed

Nearly half of  students say they’re interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — including health care — when they start college, but few will earn a STEM degree, according to a Complete College America report.

Forty-eight percent of recent ACT takers express interest in a STEM major, reports ACT. Forty-one percent of new four-year students and 45 percent of two-year students choose a STEM major, including health sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Four-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, while two-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.

Most don’t make it.

Among 4-year students, 57% of students who choose health sciences and 59% who choose computer science never complete a credential in that field.  The problem is more profound at 2-year colleges where 58% of health science and 72% of computer science students leave the program without a credential.

Those who stick with STEM complete college-level math in their first year, the report finds. Quitters don’t. They also complete few science courses.

Complete College America proposes scheduling college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in the first year to keep students on track. That will help only if students are prepared to pass college math, which many are not.

Nursing is a dream career for many young women from working-class families. Perhaps their brothers dream of being computer techs. It takes a strong foundation in math and science to turn those dreams into reality.

About Joanne


  1. Beliavsky says:

    I assume prospective nurses are required to take algebra in college or have a high enough SAT/ACT or other test score to place out of it. But nurses and doctors very rarely use algebra in their work. We should look at what academic requirements are really necessary. If passing an Algebra course (of for doctors, a calculus course) is really a test of IQ and work ethic, we should be honest about it.

    • Honestly I am happier knowing that my nurse is smart enough to pass algebra, even though he/she doesn’t use algebra at work. It might be an IQ test, but some kind of screen for IQ makes sense to me.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Like this:

      A math professor was explaining a particularly complicated calculus concept to his class when a frustrated pre-med student interrupts him. “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” the pre-med blurts out. The professor pauses, and answers matter-of-factly: “Because math saves lives.” “How?” demanded the student. “How on Earth does calculus save lives?” “Because,” replied the professor, “it keeps certain people out of medical school.

      This joke is old 🙂

    • When I taught the pre-nursing bio labs and spent time working on dosage calculations (basic algebra, exponents or decimals), I had several students assure me that they’d never need it, since there’s an app for that and besides, it says right on the instructions how much to give the patient. I scared several of them when I told them about a true ER show that I saw, in which the premeasured doses were used up. One of the nurses was able to do a back of the envelope calculation, squeeze on an IV bag to get an approximate amount into the patient, and stabilize their Mg or Ca levels before they died. At that point, they could do a blood draw and more accurately figure out a dose.

      It may be that these things are rarely calculated by hand any more, but in a tough situation where things really need to be figured out by hand (power failures, side of the road situations, etc) I’d like to think that there was at least a chance that the nurse/paramedic could do it. In my (limited) experience with hospitals and nurses, I’ve found that older nurses, who had to learn things with no hope of an app doing it for them, could still talk about what was being given and explain doses and dilutions, while a noticeable number of the younger ones were stuck with ‘well, it says to give you x ml IV’. They were technically competent at administering the dose, but didn’t seem to have a clue where the numbers came from.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    The so-called “quitters” are not prepared for STEM, and getting them up to it would be difficult. In addition, their talents may lie elsewhere.
    So the “bust-out” freshman math course for STEM, as opposed to the math-for-non-majors serves a purpose.

  3. You won’t pass the NCLEX (nurse licensing) exam without a solid knowledge of algebra and various sciences.

    In my day, a computer science major (Bachelors of Science) required the following math and science coursework:

    Calculus I/II
    Linear and Abstract Algebra
    Diff Eqns/Applied Stats plus one upper division math elective.

    In sciences

    Engineering Physics I/II (co-req/pre-req was Calculus)
    plus 12 additional science credits (8 of which had to be
    upper division).

    Students MIGHT like STEM careers, but the math and science requirements will usually stop them dead in their tracks.

    My first class in Comp Sci was CSC 116 (Fortran) where we had to learn the mainframe, editor, compiler, and the language itself. We had two homework assignments a week, 150 mins of classroom instruction per week, a quiz every other week, 4 tests, and a end of class project (writing the parser for a airline reservation system).

    If you couldn’t grasp what was going on after the first 5 weeks, you were filling out a drop slip and giving serious consideration to changing majors.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I have no doubt that you can’t pass the NCLEX without a solid knowledge of algebra and several sciences. But that isn’t really responsive to Beliavsky’s point.

      The people who accredit nursing programs require algebra and various sciences. And the licensing exams then test on what was in those courses. But the coursework (and the exam) may have little to do with what nurses actually need to know and be able to do.

      Since many of the accreditors–and the people who make the exam–are professors, there is an incentive to over-require.

  4. This just shows how bad K-12 is in this country.

    • superdesroyer says:

      What is wrong with education in the U.S. is the idiotic belief that everyone can be taught calculus if enough efforts is put into teaching the subject, if teachers adequately motivate their students, and if educators are trained enough.

      Anyone who believes that everyone can be taught calculus has never tried to teach math to people.

      • Eliabeth says:

        The problem is a disconnect between HS and college performance in these STEM subjects – more students should know by college whether they are able to handle the rigor. Many other countries identify strengths and direct students toward or away from these fields well before the end of HS.

        Another thing I’ve found is that simply having math ability does not make one a competent teacher. No, not everyone can learn calculus, but it is not as difficult as it is made out to be. Two simple concepts – differentiation (rate of change) and integration (area), plus a working knowledge of algebra and trig, and one should be able to do the first year or so of “real” college math. I frankly found college math to be less about imparting knowledge and more about “this is really tough and obscure and we the faculty are here to show you you are too dumb to do this”. The attitude that teaching this well was beneath their dignity. There is a big difference between a four year major in a subject and a working knowledge/understanding of the basics.

  5. Those fields have had high drop/transfer/fail rates for over 50 years. I know two engineers who were told, at their first orientation session, by the dean, that they should look to the right and left of them and recognize that only one of the three would be there at graduation – and that’s what happened. My best friend was pre-med; ditto. Another was in a highly-rated Bachelor of Science Nursing program; ditto. Freshman weeder courses – English lit/comp, sciences, math- took a toll on all freshmen and all of the above happened prior to the 70s and the large increase in the number of college students – often at or below adequate preparation for real college work.

    • superdesroyer says:

      One of the problems with modern college rankings is that they discourage weed out classes because they lower a college’s rankings. The smart colleges have learned to keep students out of hard majors instead of weeding them out.

  6. Nurses USED to have to calculate drug titrations. For example:

    which is essentially an algebra problem (or perhaps you would call it a problem in ratios), but apparently, the drug infusion pumps take care of it for you, these days.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Paramedics are not permitted to assume that the calculator to figure ratios is working. I kinda like that they are still expected to get a mostly right answer even in the face of equipment failure.
      But, you are correct that this isn’t algebra. I want my nurses tohave a decent feel for ratios so that a data entry error doesn’t kill me. A course in algebra probably won’t provide this.

  7. >Those fields have had high drop/transfer/fail rates for over 50 years.

    Yes, they certainly have. When I was in engineering school in the 1970s, about 200 showed up for the freshman intro class. Four years later, 16 of us graduated. Most dropped in the freshman year, but a few held on until some really hard junior year course loads.