College & Workforce Readiness

Low-Income, Urban High Schools Producing Few STEM Graduates

By Catherine Gewertz — October 15, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Students who attend low-income, urban schools with high minority populations are earning college degrees in science, technology, engineering and math at far lower rates than are their peers from higher-income, low-minority schools in big cities and suburbs, according to a report released Thursday.

The National Student Clearinghouse, which collects longitudinal data from many of the nation’s schools, found in its “High School Benchmarks” report that only 6 percent of students in the class of 2008 who were from low-income, high-minority high schools earned an associate, bachelor’s or advanced degree in a STEM field within six years, compared with 16 to 17 percent of students from wealthier urban and suburban schools with smaller minority populations.

Breaking down STEM degree-earning by subfields shows that more than half of the science degrees earned by the class of 2008 were in psychology and the social sciences.

The focus on STEM fields is new for the NSC report, which is now in its third year. The organization decided to add that area this year because of STEM fields’ potential to offer jobs that pay well in a high-demand field.

A word of caution about the data set: It’s not nationally representative. The data come only from schools that participate in the National Student Clearinghouse, a pool of about 4 million students. It reflects only 24 percent to 30 percent of the high school students in a given year.

The report tracks the college enrollment, persistence, and achievement patterns of students in the graduating classes of 2008 and 2011 through 2013. Familiar patterns emerge that correlate with the wealth, minority enrollment, and location of students’ schools.

Here’s how those patterns play out in the class of 2014’s college enrollment rates the first fall after students finish high school.

The patterns are stark in terms of students’ choices of two-year or four-year institutions, too. The NSC data show that 25 percent to 32 percent of the students who graduated from low-income high schools enrolled in four-year colleges or universities, compared with 35 percent to 51 percent of those from wealthier schools.

Students’ choice of college can make a big difference for those who need it the most. Earlier research shows, for instance, that low-income students who attend four-year colleges or universities are 50 percent more likely to complete bachelor’s degrees than those who enroll in community colleges.

The National Student Clearinghouse report reminds us that coming from a higher-income school correlates with better college persistence rates, too. Eighty-four percent to 89 percent of those students in the class of 2012 who enrolled in college the fall after they finished high school stayed in that college, or another postsecondary program, for a second year, compared with 73 percent to 82 percent of their peers from lower-income schools.

Here’s how the blend of school income level and minority enrollment plays out in persistence rates for the class of 2012.

Regardless of where students attended high school, the NSC report shows that college persistence rates in private colleges and universities, and in four-year institutions, outstrip those in public and two-year institutions.

Six-year college completion rates favored students from urban and suburban schools with low concentrations of minority students. Only 22 percent of students from high-minority, low-income, urban schools completed an associate, bachelor’s or advanced degree within six years, compared with 47 percent of those from low-minority. urban schools and 50 percent of those from low-minority suburban schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.