The conventional wisdom is that too few students are interested in careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and that if we could only get more students excited about science and math, we would fill our pipeline with more students who earn credentials in computer science, engineering and health care.

A recent report from ACT and new data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tell a different story. In fact, well over 40% of all new entering students either express an interest in STEM or actually choose a STEM program. The ACT survey found that among recent high school graduates who took the ACT, 48% expressed interest in a STEM major.  NCES found that 41% of new entering 4-year students and 45% of 2-year students select programs of study in STEM, including health sciences.  Even more telling, students are choosing programs that lead to high demand jobs. 4-year students favor health science, biological science and engineering, and 2-year students are interested in health sciences and computer science.   According to new research by Burning Glass , health sciences and informational technology are the highest demand STEM fields across the country.  The supply problem in STEM, particularly for high demand fields, is solved! Wrong.

Unfortunately, the majority of students who enter postsecondary education with aspirations to earn a credential in STEM either switch out of STEM or drop out of school altogether. 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.

With these numbers, colleges are like sport fisherman – catch and release.  Any meaningful effort to produce more STEM degrees will require postsecondary education to build Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) for students into and through STEM programs. We know that many students give up on their dream of a STEM degree before the end of the first year, if not the first semester.  Students who leave STEM don’t complete college-level math and take far fewer credits in STEM courses in their first year than those who stick with STEM. Creating clearer academic maps and default schedules for new entering students that put college-level math and a majority of STEM courses in their first year plan would help.  Creating meta-majors that group various programs in similar fields and align entry level courses across those programs could allow students some freedom to explore a range of programs in their desired field instead of locking in on one too early, having it not work out and leave STEM altogether.   Finally, strong advising to help students choose a meta-major, program of study and to support students all along the way would pay huge dividends.

CCA is doing just that in four states and the District of Columbia through a grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust. In addition to DC – Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts and Idaho postsecondary institutions are building GPS systems for high demand STEM fields in their states.  In the next 12 months, institutions from each of these projects will implement all aspects of a GPS system to better serve the high percentage of students who know that a STEM credential is the key to their future, but don’t quite know how to achieve it.