Recently, The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) released a report on the contribution of small and mid-sized private, nonprofit colleges to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) pipeline. The report is a component of a more encompassing public information campaign, Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education.
The report addressed four questions:
In all cases, the findings reinforced the importance of small independent schools in the preparation, persistence and retention, and graduation of students in STEM fields. For example, rates of persistence and completion to a STEM degree were substantially higher in private non-doctoral colleges (62 percent) compared to public non-doctoral institutions (41 percent) and compared favorably with both private (63 percent) and public (82 percent) doctoral institutions.
With time-to-degree, 80 percent of students obtained their STEM degree in four years or fewer at the private non-doctoral institutions, compared to 34 percent at public non-doctoral. In addition, 57 percent of students obtaining bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields from a private non-doctoral institution planned on applying to graduate school, compared to 41 percent for students at public non-doctoral institutions.
In Massachusetts, the only state that educates more students (54 percent) at private independent colleges than public colleges, the data are even stronger and indicate that more than 70 percent of students entering STEM fields graduate with bachelor’s degrees from private nonprofit colleges.
Finally, when comparing the number of students who earned doctorates based on type of undergraduate institution, 20 percent of doctoral recipients from 2006 to 2010 earned their bachelor’s degree at a private non-doctoral school, compared to 12 percent from public non-doctoral.
The report concludes that “the role that independent, smaller colleges and universities play in preparing the nation’s scientists has often been overlooked,” and the hope is that this report will help in dispelling the myth that students interested in STEM should consider public, research-oriented institutions first, and also, that liberal arts colleges and the preparation of students interested in STEM careers are somehow mutually exclusive.
In a 2012 essay on the myths surrounding a liberal arts education, Carol T. Christ, then president of Smith College, discussed this “erroneous construct”:
The CIC report is another important piece of evidence for “making the case” for the value of a liberal arts education, even for individuals interested in STEM careers. And perhaps, especially for those interested in STEM careers, the small private college or university could be a wise choice. As stated on the HHMI website, “Liberal arts colleges and master’s colleges and universities play a unique role in educating the scientific leaders of the future. [In addition,] these institutions serve substantial numbers of women and minorities underrepresented in the sciences.” And the special strengths of these small colleges and universities make them excellent environments for incubating future scientists.
Dr. Walter Breau is vice president of academic affairs at Elms College.
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