Chapter 3:

The Undergraduate Experience in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering


Two-Year Institutions

Community colleges and 2-year colleges have assumed an increasingly important role in postsecondary education. These institutions now meet many needs, serving those who want to complete requirements for a high school diploma, try out college-level coursework before transferring to a 4-year college, or take job-related courses (Adelman 1997).

The changing role of the community college is not revealed by enrollment statistics alone. Over the past three decades, community colleges have consistently accounted for just under one-quarter of all course enrollments (Adelman 1995). Community colleges attract more minority (particularly Hispanic) and low- to moderate-income students, veterans, and those students with lower grade-point averages and SAT scores.

Some interesting differences in course participation patterns between 2-year and 4-year institutions emerged in an analysis conducted by Clifford Adelman of the U.S. Department of Education. According to Adelman, the most traditional way of assessing rates of participation in a field is to ask what proportion of students from a given group takes–and successfully completes–key courses in that field. Where there are considerable differences among groups, what are the reasons for those differences? Some answers may point to factors that cannot be changed, whereas others suggest strategies for better advisement and pre-college education.

Among those students who primarily attend 4-year institutions (see appendix table 3-10), there are several key issues:


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Students With Disabilities 

National data about persons with disabilities in all fields at the undergraduate level is insufficient to measure and describe the magnitude of the problems they face. For a description of undergraduate students who reported a disability, see appendix table 3-16. The reasons that students with disabilities may not be majoring in science, mathematics, and engineering (SME) in greater numbers were examined in a recent study (Seymour and Hunter, 1998) conducted at one U.S. university. The study (see "Technical Notes to Chapter 3" for details on the study and its participants) suggests students with disabilities might be more likely to complete degrees in these fields if changes were made in faculty attitudes, financial aid requirements, and time allowed for degree completion. The study, which is described here, also showed the important role a university’s disability services office can play in negotiating accommodations for students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in undergraduate and graduate majors in SME curricula. At first glance, one of the main causes of this is not unlike those of other underrepresented groups: the reason lies in the structure and culture of SME teaching. Students with disabilities face many unique issues and barriers in achieving success. Many students with disabilities simultaneously have a high potential for success and are at risk of dropping out or switching to another field. They must overcome significant obstacles to complete a university SME education. The three major barriers common to SME undergraduates with disabilities are faculty attitudes regarding certain accommodations, some aspects of the financial aid system, and the limitations of the disability itself.

A strong interest in their discipline, focused career aspirations, and support and accommodation in the early stages of their studies are characteristics common to successful graduates within SME. One distinguishing characteristic of those who persist from those who leave, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or disability, is the development of particular attitudes and strategies. Students with disabilities who are most successful have communicated their needs and have identified appropriate accommodation and support. They have developed a combination of persistence, excellent organizational skills, knowledge of assistive technology, and the ability to invoke the necessary support systems or agencies when dealing with barriers.

Faculty Attitudes

None of the Seymour and Hunter (1998) study participants recommended changes in the accommodation system administered by disability services offices. They did suggest that, in many cases, faculty attitudes had negative impact on the system and needed to be addressed.

Faculty responses to formal accommodation requests from students with disabilities included the following:

  • Discounting the need for accommodation
  • Refusing the accommodation as a way to "prepare" the student for "real world" competition
  • Encouraging students to drop the class or change majors
  • Placing the students in inappropriate testing places (subject to noise or periodic interruptions)
  • Forgetting to send a test or not communicating changes or errors (if student arranged testing under disability services administration)
  • Lowering grades for work done under accommodated conditions
  • Insisting on knowing the nature of the student’s disability, treatment, or medication in order to decide whether they will agree to the accommodation already requested and/or arranged by the disability services office
  • Embarrassing student by talking about the disability or accommodations in front of peers

Study participants perceived, based on faculty responses to requests for accommodations, that some SME faculty "approved" certain conditions as "genuine disabilities" and exercised various degrees of skepticism about all others. The conclusion made by many students is that the rigors of the entirely unofficial process of approving accommodations already granted by the university has little to do with academic issues. For those faculty who act in the "gatekeeper" role, it may be seen as an appropriate way of testing for fitness to belong to the academic and professional communities based on SME disciplines. The essentially moral question raised by many requests for accommodations is if in granting it a student with a disability would be given an unfair advantage over other students.

Financial Aid

The main difficulties of students who sought support through the university’s financial aid office were that the rules that apply to all financial aid recipients do not make allowances for carrying less than a full class load, the nature of the disability, its variability or unpredictability, the effects of particular medications, problems of fatigue, and unexpected crises of mobility and transportation. These are issues which can make a full complement of classes very difficult or impossible for many students with disabilities. Taking a full load to qualify for financial aid very commonly creates a pattern of "incompletes," failures, and temporary withdrawals.

Some students in this study believed they would have spent less time, energy, and money repeating classes had they been allowed to work at a pace commensurate with the constraints of their disability.

Attrition and the Stop-Go Phenomenon

Although the attrition rate of students with disabilities appears comparable with those of students of color, there are major differences. The "attrition" of students with disabilities is often temporary, more of a stop-go pattern to their progress rather than an abandonment of their education or their field.

Approximately one-third of the undergraduates in the study reported feeling sufficiently discouraged to consider leaving either their major or their institution. Four related issues recurred in the explanations of undergraduates with disabilities who were considering leaving or who had left: financial problems; intermittent troubles due to the disability; accumulation of "incompletes" in the record, related both to the disability and financial difficulties; and accommodation difficulties.

Most students with disabilities resumed their studies once a specific disability setback and/or their financial situation had improved, or they were able to resolve problems with their academic record. This is not, however, a pattern indicated in the SME attrition rates of students of color, women, or white males. Because time out of school was reported by the undergraduates with disabilities themselves to be, typically, one semester, the overall time taken to complete SME majors (i.e., a little over 5 years) is similar to time taken by those students without disabilities.

Disability as a "Disadvantage of Time"

Coping with time-related problems was a universal feature of the experience of all study participants. It distinguishes their circumstances from those of other SME majors, is a facet of every type of barrier they encounter, and transcends differences of students with disabilities of different types. The time issues that participants raised were of five broad types: problems of pace; speed of learning, comprehension, and recall; temporal disruptions in physical and mental functions; time-related educational needs; and time expended in coping with difficulties raised by their disabilities.

Because SME faculty usually measure academic success (as opposed to demonstrations of knowledge and comprehension in other forms) by specific standards and time-related criteria, the slower pace at which students with many types of disabilities must work becomes a critical disadvantage. Students with learning and other disabilities must find alternative ways to absorb and apply class materials. Fluctuations in a disability or the side effects of medication may prevent students from concentrating on their studies. Basic educational requirements and activities of daily living take more time. Coping with these difficulties can be frustrating and take valuable time away from studies.

Disability Services

To meet the needs of students with all types of disabilities, a university’s Disability Services Office can play a significant role in helping to negotiate accommodations among students, faculty, university administration, and outside agencies. Students with disabilities identified the following Disability Services-arranged services and accommodations as having special value: preregistration, arranging priority access to particular classes, changing inaccessible or remote classrooms, getting textbooks recorded prior to the start of classes, arranging special test accommodations, and assistance in locating and trying out assistive technology.

A similar picture of the course taking among those students taking courses primarily in 2-year institutions did not yield results rich enough for convincing analyses of the differences by race/ethnicity. There is no question that, when transfer students are excluded, however, the remaining group shows distinct gender differences in participation patterns. Appendix table 3-11 clearly shows this pattern of gender differences in technical mathematics (men) versus business mathematics (women), introductory computer science (men) versus data processing (women), and computer technology courses (men) versus the biology courses taken as part of associate’s degree programs in nursing and allied health.

Although analysis of course taking by students in 2-year institutions is not feasible, detailed analyses were made of patterns of representation of racial/ethnic and gender categories among persons attending 2-year colleges. Analyses were made for the total enrollment of 2-year colleges in the United States. It is noted that racial/ethnic and gender patterns of total enrollment at 2-year colleges are similar to patterns of full-time enrollment at these institutions. (See appendix tables 3-12 and 3-13.)

The representation of white males among the 2-year college population has been proportionally decreasing since 1980. (See figure 3-2, text table 3-2, and appendix tables 3-14 and 3-15.) In fact, by 1994 only white males, black males, and Hispanic males had IR scores less than 100. The other groups are attending 2-year colleges at a higher rate than their population proportions would suggest. Since 1990, the 2-year college enrollment IR scores of Hispanic males and females, Asians males and females, and black females have been increasing dramatically. The IR scores for American Indian females, already at a high level, have increased slightly during the 1990s. The IR scores for black males have increased slightly. As of 1994, black males had the lowest proportional representation among persons attending 2-year institutions. (See appendix tables 3-12 and 3-13.)


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