Increasing access to STEM bachelor’s degrees

Students who enroll in baccalaureate programs at community colleges in Washington state mirror the demographic profile that the programs intend to serve – those less able to access a four-year institution.

However, more needs to be done to ensure that bachelor’s degrees in increasingly popular science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields attract minorities and women, according to a report by the Community College Research Initiatives (CCRI) team at the University of Washington.

Washington has one of the most comprehensive community college baccalaureate programs in the country. Since 2007, 27 of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges have been authorized to provide 102 bachelor of science degrees in high-demand workforce programs, the CCRI report said. Those institutions have conferred more than 3,500 bachelor of applied science (BAS) degrees.

Improve access for underserved populations

The state’s objective is to meet the needs of students who are underserved in higher education by reducing the barriers associated with transfer. According to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, these degrees are meant to provide access to the workforce-focused population “comprised of a large portion of people of color, older working adults and people (women) who are place-bound with family responsibilities.”

Among the nearly 8,000 students enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at a Washington community college, 58 percent are white, 11 percent are Asian, 11 percent are Latinx, 6 percent are African-American and 9 percent are two or more races.

In comparison, among students who enrolled in any professional-technical education program in any community or technical college in the state between 2009 and 2018, 56 percent are white, 9 percent are Asian, 8 percent are Latinx, 6 percent are African-American and 8 percent are two or more races.

Since the program was created, the number of STEM students has increased. By 2018, more than one-third of total BAS degree enrollments were in STEM subjects. About one-quarter of BAS degree enrollments were in business and another one-third were in health care.

Minorities less likely to enroll in STEM

According to the report, demographics are highly correlated with students’ academic programs. Students enrolled in community college BAS degree programs in STEM areas are significantly more likely to be male and veterans. They are also much more likely to be white, not parents and younger than students in other programs.

Health care, safety and education programs, however, attract higher proportions of BAS students who are female, African-American, parents and older than students enrolled in other instructional programs. Business programs have significantly larger numbers of students who are Latinx and students receiving need-based financial aid.

The number of high-wage, high-demand STEM jobs has grown dramatically in the state, the report said, and state policymakers should be concerned that “STEM students resemble a more traditional college population than other BAS programs.”

“As the number of STEM programs and students increases, it will be important to continue to monitor access for underserved students,” the report said. “It continues to be important to recruit underserved students into these programs if Washington’s colleges are to continue providing access for students who would not otherwise enroll in baccalaureate programs.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.