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Decreasing Leaks in the Postsecondary Pipeline

Drs. Tommy J. Stevenson and Melvin C. RayDrs. Tommy J. Stevenson and Melvin C. Ray

Surprisingly, between 1996 and 2000, the overall six-year graduation rate of Black students enrolled at U.S. public colleges and universities was a mere 42 percent; among Black males the rate was approximately 34 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).

Simply put, six out of every 10 Black college student and approximately seven out of 10 Black males will likely accrue long-term loan debt without earning a degree or one that has labor market value. This leaky postsecondary pipeline has enormous adverse implications for those students, their families, local communities, and the nation. For example, labor market demand for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) degree holders is outpacing the supply drawn from the U.S. postsecondary pipeline.

The largest untapped source appears to be students of color, particularly Black males. In a recent report, Blacks represent approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population; 11 percent of college enrollment; 9 percent of college graduates; and only 6 percent of STEM graduates (American Institutes for Research, 2012). Analysis of STEM degree earners by race and gender suggests that the largest untapped percentage of prospective STEM degree earners is among Black males.

Bidwell (2015) purported that, in 2002, only 6.1 percent of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to African-American men, and 10 years later that percentage had virtually remained the same at 6.2 percent. Over the years, scholars have provided promising solutions for increasing persistence and graduation rates; however, a vast majority of the findings were based on results of empirical research that examined relationships between social and behavioral (i.e., non-cognitive) predictors of academic achievement among primarily inner-city secondary students.

“There is a desperate need to assess the generalizability of that body of knowledge to rural and postsecondary college students particularly STEM majors” said Ray, Research Fellow, Social Science Research Center, and Emeritus Associate Professor of Sociology.

In an attempt to add to the student success literature and provide empirical-based guidance to STEM educators and majors, Ray and Stevenson recently completed an exploratory study of relationships between social and behavioral (i.e., non-cognitive) factors and academic achievement among a sample (n=699) of African-American students who were enrolled at Mississippi State University in spring 2013. Located in the rural Deep South, 80 percent of the university’s student population were residents of the state.

The researchers deployed the Academic Decision Support System (ADSS), a web-based survey designed to measure students’ perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, daily routine activities and grade point averages. Essentially, they wanted to identify and assess variations in mean grade point averages by previously reported predictors of academic achievement, including academic self-efficacy, academic self-concept, interactions with instructors, study habits, and employment patterns.

Among Black male STEM majors, key findings included, but were not limited to, the following:

  1. Students who visited their professors more regularly had a significantly higher mean grade point average.
  2. Students who studied alone reported significantly higher grade point averages.
  3. Transfer students’ mean grade point averages were significantly higher than first-time freshmen.
  4. Students who reported higher self-efficacy also reported significantly higher grade point averages.
  5. Students who worked more than 20 hours per week had a significantly higher mean GPA.

Results of their exploratory study provide insights regarding potential “best practices” for helping to increase persistence and success among Black male STEM majors at rural, HWCIs. Black males who had higher self-efficacy, studied alone, visited their professors, worked more than 20 hours per week, and transferred from primarily community colleges had significantly higher grade point averages.

These preliminary findings can assist student success programs by sharing similar results with target students and providing a blueprint for more effective evidence-based interventions. The next step in their study is to employ multivariate analysis to assess the relative effects of social and behavioral factors on academic achievement among rural African-American male and female STEM majors.

Dr. Tommy J. Stevenson is Special Assistant to the Provost & Executive Vice President at Mississippi State University.

Dr. Melvin C. Ray is a Research Fellow in the Social Science Research Center and Emeritus, Associate Professor of Sociology, Mississippi State University.

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