Persistence, Retention, and Attainment in Higher Education and in S&E
Many students who start out in undergraduate or graduate programs drop out before completing a degree. This section examines differences between S&E and non-S&E students in persistence and completion of higher education.
S&E students persist and complete undergraduate programs at about the same rate as non-S&E students. Six years after enrollment in a 4-year college or university in 1995–96, about 60% of both S&E and non-S&E students had completed a bachelor’s degree. Another 13%–17% were still enrolled and may eventually have earned a bachelor’s degree, and about 20% had not completed any degree and were no longer enrolled
Undergraduate field switching out of S&E is about equally matched by entry into S&E fields as a whole. Among postsecondary students who began at 4-year colleges or universities in 1995–96, 26% reported an S&E major, 44% reported a non-S&E major, and 31% were missing data on major or had not declared a major. Of those for whom data on major are available and reported, 37% reported an S&E major. Six years later, among those who had attained a bachelor’s degree, 39% were S&E majors. Although about 30% of agricultural/biological sciences majors, 20% of engineering/computer sciences/mathematics/physical sciences majors, and 30% of social sciences majors eventually switched to non-S&E majors before earning a bachelor’s degree, 43% of those with initially missing or undeclared majors and 14% of those with initial non-S&E majors switched into S&E fields before earning their bachelor’s degrees
Within S&E fields, undergraduate attrition out of agricultural/biological sciences and physical/mathematics/computer sciences/engineering fields is greater than transfers into those fields, and transfers into social/behavioral sciences are greater than attrition. Among postsecondary students who began at 4-year colleges or universities in 1995–96 and for whom data on major are available and reported, 12% reported an agricultural/biological sciences major, 16% reported a physical sciences/mathematics/computer sciences/engineering major, and 9% reported a social/behavioral sciences major. Six years later, among those who had attained a bachelor’s degree, 10% were agricultural/biological sciences majors, 13% were physical sciences/mathematics/computer sciences/engineering majors, and 16% were social/behavioral sciences majors. (See sidebar "Effects of Research Experiences on Interest, Retention, and Success.")
S&E bachelor’s degree recipients are more likely to enroll in and complete graduate training than bachelor’s degree recipients in most other fields. Fifty-seven percent of 1992–93 bachelor’s degree recipients in natural sciences and mathematics and 50% of those with bachelor’s degrees in social and behavioral sciences enrolled in graduate school by 2003, compared with 25%–43% of graduates in most other fields (including 39% of engineering graduates). Education graduates also had a high percentage enrolling in graduate school (50%). Forty percent of natural sciences and mathematics bachelor’s degree recipients completed an advanced degree program within 10 years, compared with 17%–31% of graduates in other fields, and 9% had completed a doctoral degree compared with up to 3% of graduates in other fields
Graduate completion rates are roughly comparable to undergraduate completion rates. Among students enrolled in doctoral programs in the early 1990s, about 60% completed doctorates within 10 years. Completion rates vary by discipline, with 64% of engineering students, 62% of life sciences students, and 55% of physical and social sciences students completing doctorates within 10 years (CGS 2005). Timing of graduate attrition varies by discipline. Early attrition from doctoral programs is more common in engineering, physical sciences, and mathematics, and later attrition is more common in humanities and social sciences.