Major Shock–Prepared Students Do Better, Study Finds

As a long-time refugee from higher education, I tend to forget — and hence am continually shocked when I rediscover — that denizens of that strange land are often impressed by research findings that those of us who live in more pedestrian territories assume everyone (even college administrators) already knew, without the need of research.

My most recent shock came this morning (July 16) upon reading Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik’s long, admiring report of a new study of 589 Georgia Tech undergraduates that tracked their persistence (or lack of it) as STEM majors. The psychology professor authors — Philip Ackerman and Ruth Kanfer of Georgia Tech and Margaret Beier of Rice — found that students who had demonstrated what they quaintly call “domain knowledge” by high grades in advanced placement classes and possessed what they call certain “personality traits (different ones for males and females)” were more likely to persist and succeed as STEM majors.

The men who dropped out of STEM fields lacked “mastery and organization,” who reported that they “lacked time management skills” and “couldn’t get things done.” The women who abandoned STEM majors “did not have a ‘self-concept’ of themselves as scientists.”

In other words, what the authors have learned from their Georgia Tech-funded study is that organized, motivated high school students who have demonstrated their ability to master advanced subjects are more likely to succeed as STEM majors than others who have not demonstrated that academic ability or who, though they may be talented and score well on aptitude tests, are disorganized or who do not think they would be happy remaining in science. Imagine that!

I should point out that the study does say more. Prof. Ackerman, for example, told Jaschik that “the correlation with student success in college STEM courses isn’t just enrollment” in advanced placement classes “but is mastery of the material sufficient to earn a high test score” on AP tests. “So if colleges want to know who will succeed in college STEM programs,” she added, “they should be looking at the AP test scores, not just registration for an AP class.”

Did colleges really not already know this?

It is also far from clear that a young woman’s lack of a “self concept” of herself as a scientist is a “personality trait” that could be cured if “educators … do more work early on with girls who are talented in science to show them that they can pursue STEM careers.” Perhaps those young women, far from suffering personality defects, are simply familiar with the vast and growing body of literature presented in books like Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Rutgers, 2013), which I discussed briefly here and Susan Pinker reviewed thoroughly here, that science, perhaps especially academic science, is not a friendly and inviting field for women who expect to have families.

Finally, although neither the abstract of the study nor Jaschik’s long discussion of it mention race or affirmative action, its unsurprising conclusion that well prepared students are more likely to stick with STEM majors than the less prepared provides additional support for Richard Sander’s “mismatch” argument that lowering admission standards for minority students does neither them nor the society at large any favors.


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