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Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline


"It appears that the 1990s marked a turning point in longer-term trends, at least for the best students either in high school or college. The top quintile SAT/ACT and GPA performers appear to have been dropping out of the STEM pipeline at a substantial rate, and this decline seems to have come on quite suddenly in the mid-to-late 1990s (although our cohorts cannot precisely time the break in trend).

What might explain this loss of high-performing students from the STEM pipeline? We can only conjecture given the lack of specifics in these data, nor can we rule out unrecognized problems in the data that may magnify the trend. The sampling properties of these various longitudinal data sets are well known, however, and all are considered reliable. The trend also shows up at different transitions in the pipeline, as well as in different data sets. So it is likely that the trend is real and not an artifact of measurement.

Likely explanations follow from different assumptions and theoretical models of career choice. Arguments that students are not prepared for majors and careers in STEM are not supported by this data. The trends indicating increased proportions of students majoring in STEM show that students are interested in and/or sufficiently prepared to major in STEM fields. The decline in the retention of the top achievers in the late 1990s is of concern, however. This may indicate that the top high school graduates are no longer interested in STEM, but it might also indicate that a future in a STEM job is not attractive for some reason. "