Skip to main content

Low grades in intro STEM courses may disproportionally deter minority students

Study of nearly 110,000 student records shows that a grade of C or lower in an introductory STEM class has a larger impact on the likelihood of underrepresented college students earning a STEM degree
28 September 2022

Receiving a grade of C or lower in introductory science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes—courses like calculus or general chemistry—makes it less likely for underrepresented minority students to earn a degree in these subjects compared to white students with similar educational backgrounds. A team of researchers, led by Penn State scientists, examined records of 109,070 students from six large, public, research-intensive universities between 2005 and 2018, showing that a low grade in even one of these courses disproportionately impacted underrepresented minority students. The study suggests that new approaches are needed to address the disparity in outcomes for underrepresented STEM students, including a critical examination of institutional structures and policies that may inhibit equity.

“Previous research has established an association between low grades in introductory STEM courses and a decreased probability of obtaining a STEM degree,” said Nathanial Brown, professor of mathematics at Penn State and an author of the paper. “We provide evidence of underrepresented STEM students experiencing greater negative impacts on graduating from low intro course grades than their white, male peers, even after controlling for academic preparation in high school and intent to study STEM. Introductory STEM courses are institutional structures that our research demonstrates may exacerbate disparities in STEM education and, as such, equity issues must be central in efforts to redesign and rebuild them.”

This research adds to a growing body of work showing a persistent disparity in STEM education outcomes in the United States. According to a 2018 National Center for Education Statistics report, women earned 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees, but only 36 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees. In 2017, data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics showed that Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people comprised 30 percent of the U.S. population, and 34 percent of STEM-intending incoming college students, yet they earned only 18 percent of actual undergraduate STEM degrees.

Collectively, this new research could have implications for the diversity of STEM professions as well as for the range of research and innovation in such fields since students interested in such subjects typically take introductory courses like calculus or general chemistry during their first semester, according to the research team.

The research team studied the records of student performance in introductory courses in physical sciences, life sciences, mathematical and computational sciences, and engineering, to discern the likelihood of students earning degrees in these subjects. The researchers explained that in an equitable education system, students with comparable high school preparation and intent to study STEM, would be expected to have similar likelihoods of attaining a STEM degree when accounting for introductory STEM course performance, regardless of their sex and/or race/ethnicity. The researchers, however, found significant disparities, even after controlling for academic preparation in high school and intended academic major.

“The probability of obtaining a STEM degree for a STEM-intending white male student who receives a grade of C or better in all introductory courses is 48 percent,” said Neil Hatfield, assistant research professor in statistics at Penn State and an author of the paper. “In contrast, we found that for an otherwise similar minoritized male student, the probability is just 40 percent. For a minoritized female student, the probability drops further to 35 percent. More specifically, a Black male student has a 31 percent chance of obtaining a degree and a Black female student has an only 28 percent chance of earning the degree.”
If students earn lower than a C in even one introductory STEM course, the disparities persist and sometimes widen, according to the study. Results showed a white male student who earns below a C in an introductory STEM course still has a 33 percent chance of earning a STEM degree. But a Black male student with a low grade in one STEM course has just a 16 percent chance of earning the degree. A Black female student with a low grade in a STEM course has only a 15 percent chance of earning the related degree.

“Often, when we talk about disparities in STEM education or differential graduation rates by race or gender, the ‘blame’ was put on the students’ abilities or their preparation,” said Brown. “Our paper contributes to a growing body of research that flips the script. It was intentionally designed to control for student factors, and given that there is still a disparity, it suggests there are other issues at play at the institutional level. Our results demonstrate the need to continue to explore whether institutions create climates where some people feel they can be successful and others don’t to the same extent, even when they have the same academic preparation and same level of interest.”

A paper describing the research appears Sept. 28 in the journal PNAS Nexus.

In addition to Brown and Hatfield, the research team included Chad M. Topaz at the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity and Williams College in Williamstown, MA.

Media Contacts
Nate Brown
Professor of Mathematics
Sam Sholtis
Science Writer