Decomposing the Racial Gap in STEM Major Attrition

A Course-Level Investigation

by Matthew D. Baird, Moshe Buchinsky, Veronica Sovero

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This paper examines differences in STEM retention between minority and non-minority undergraduate students. To do so, we use detailed student records of a student's courses, grades, and current major for every term the student was enrolled in a large public university. To examine the role of ability in the switching decision and timing, we estimate STEM and non-STEM ability, and then compare the joint distribution of students who switch out of STEM versus STEM stayers. Students with relatively greater non-STEM ability are more likely to switch out of STEM, but ability cannot completely account for the differences in switching patterns for Hispanic and Black students. In fact, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to persist in STEM after ability is taken into account. We also find evidence of switching behavior that appears motivated by a preference for graduation within four years.

This research was conducted by RAND Labor and Population.

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