Black and Hispanic students who participated in a rigorous STEM summer program prior to their senior year in high school were more likely to enroll at top-ranked colleges and universities, persist at those schools, and graduate within four years with a STEM degree – according to a new study from TC’s Sarah Cohodes.

Released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study suggests underrepresented STEM students are better served by mentoring and guidance in the run-up to their final year in high school – a contrast to programs that seek to support the STEM pipeline of already-enrolled college students. 

“We were able in the paper to show that the pathway to success is a program that pushes students to apply to, and attend, elite institutions,” said Cohodes of her work with co-authors Helen Ho, Research Director of The People Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Silvia Robles, a researcher at Mathematica.

Behind the Research

The “STEM Summer Programs for Underrepresented Youth Increase STEM Degrees” findings drew on the data generated by high-achieving, rising high school seniors enrolled over three summers in STEM programs administered by an unidentified northeast institution of higher learning starting in 2014.

Photo of Sarah Cohodes

Sarah Cohodes, Associate Professor of Economics & Education. (Photo: TC Archives) 

Between 75-120 students each summer were randomly assigned to each of three learning groups: an intensive six-week residential program; a one-week compressed program, also residential; and an online cohort.

Researchers compared the enrollment trends, persistence and graduation rates of program enrollees with the outcomes of a non-attending, randomly-assigned control group.

While students in all three programs demonstrated benefits, students in the control group were less likely to complete their degrees during the research’s duration, even though they were equally qualified.

Future Impact

“To go from abstract high school courses to the ability to see role models in the field and how STEM applies out in the world makes a huge difference,” said Cohodes.

“Yet, it is unclear from the data if the findings are a result of the formal curriculum, role models, or the social networks of being with a group of similarly talented young people.”

The summer programs and resulting research was spurred by the disparity in college persistence among underrepresented students with an interest in STEM careers.

Black and Hispanic students respectively represent 14 and 21 percent of the U.S. college-age population. The National Science Board conversely reports that Black students earn just nine percent of the nation’s undergraduate STEM degrees with a disproportionate number (16 percent) awarded to Hispanic students.

“The disparity in STEM degrees is not due to differences in interest,” Cohodes, Ho and Robles write. “Upon entering college, underrepresented minority (URM) students plan to major in STEM fields at similar rates to their white peers, but they are more likely to switch away from a STEM field or leave college.”

Creating STEM pipelines for underrepresented students is not an inexpensive proposition. The cost of the six-week program totaled approximately $15,000 per student; approximately $2,000 was spent on each student attending the one-week and online programs. But the return-on-investment is profound.

“Our findings show that focusing on higher education after students apply to college may miss a key opportunity to intervene in students’ lives before they apply to college — the point in time crucial to the institutional choices that may ultimately help students succeed,” the authors write.