Are sexual minority students less likely to persist in STEM degrees?

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Credit: Carla Schaffer / AAAS

Sexual minority students – lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer – were less likely than their heterosexual peers to be retained in STEM degrees after four years of college, suggests a new study based on a national survey of more than 4,000 college students. Diversity is crucial in STEM fields, providing a greater likelihood of reaching breakthroughs. However, compared to other minority groups, the LGBQ community has received little attention in conversations regarding broadening participation in STEM, says author Bryce E. Hughes. Previous studies have suggested, but not conclusively determined, that sexual minority STEM students persist at lower rates in these majors compared to their heterosexual counterparts. To verify this, Hughes used data from the Higher Education Research Institute's national longitudinal survey, one of the first such samples of college students that allowed disaggregation by sexual orientation. The data included responses from 4,162 STEM college students at 78 institutions. Hughes used this data to determine if sexual minority status lowered the likelihood of retention in a STEM major by the fourth year of college. The results showed that sexual minority students were 8% less likely than heterosexual students to persist in STEM degrees by their fourth year of college, with this likelihood increasing to nearly 10% when controlling for other factors that increased a student's likelihood of being retained in STEM, such as parent employment in STEM and better high school grades. Surprisingly, sexual minority STEM students were more likely to have participated in undergraduate research when starting out, theoretically increasing their chances of having had sustaining, high-quality interactions with faculty and of gaining a sense of "STEM identity" that would have helped them to persist at higher rates (though they did not). Hughes also found that the probability of retention for sexual minority men was lower than for heterosexual men, whereas sexual minority women's probability to complete a STEM degree was greater than that of heterosexual women. These findings highlight the need to further address gender and sexual minority status in STEM, Hughes says. For example, STEM educators should be encouraged that sexual minority STEM aspirants are participating in undergraduate research at higher rates and perhaps further assess these experiences, with that in mind.

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Bryce E. Hughes
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406-690-9913
@AAAS

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Related Journal Article

http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aao6373

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