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Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 2, Issue 3, Topic: Postsecondary Education
Entry and Persistence of Women and Minorities in College Science and Engineering Education
By: Gary Huang, Nebiyu Taddese, and Elizabeth Walter
This article was originally published as the Executive Summary of the Research and Development Report of the same name. The sample survey data are from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth-Graders (NELS) and the 1990 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS).

    Research and Development Reports are intended to

    • Share studies and research that are development in nature.
    • Share results of studies that are the cutting edge of methodological developments.
    • Participate in discussions of emerging issues of interest to the researchers.
    These reports present results or discussion that do not reach definitive conclusions at this point in time, either because the data are tentative, the methodology is new and developing, or the topic is one on which there are divergent views. Therefore, the techniques and inferences made from the data are tentative and are subject to revision


This study examines the gaps related to gender and race/ethnicity in entry, persistence and attainment of postsecondary science and engineering (S&E) education. After reviewing selected prior research and examining potentially relevant variables in two National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) surveys, several variables were selected to create a multivariate model for use in two empirical analyses. The overall goal of the study was to try to determine the relative importance of these variables in sustaining the gender and race/ethnicity gaps in S&E education. The specific goals for the two analyses are described below.

The first analysis examines the link between high school experience and entry into S&E postsecondary programs to explore the extent to which women and underrepresented minorities continue to have lower entry rates into S&E programs at the postsecondary level. This part of the study analyzes data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth-Graders (NELS:1988/1994). Now that the 1994 third follow-up survey data are available, researchers can follow a nationally representative population of 1988 8th-graders through high school and into college or the workforce.

The second analysis addresses issues relating to persistence and degree attainment by underrepresented minorities and women in postsecondary S&E study. It traces a cohort of postsecondary students who began their S&E education in their first postsecondary year (i.e., as freshmen) through a 5-year time frame (1989-90 to 1993-94) using data from the 1990 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:1990/1994).

The two analyses are presented in one report to address an overarching policy concern, namely, gender and racial/ethnic gaps in postsecondary S&E entry and persistence. It was thought that presenting both analyses in one report may help readers learn about the policy issues in a more coherent way because entry and persistence are related equity concerns. However, the reader is cautioned against linking the results of the two analyses because the data sources are independent cohorts.

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Entering the S&E Pipeline

The findings from the first analysis support an overall notion that much of the racial/ethnic and gender difference in the entry into S&E programs in postsecondary education can be explained by examining family environment, family support, student behavior, and school factors across race/ethnicity and gender. That is, while the initial findings showed that the racial/ethnic gap only occurred among men and the gender gap mainly happened among Asians and whites, further examination showed that students of any race/ethnicity or gender with the following characteristics had a greater likelihood of entering into (i.e., majoring in) S&E in postsecondary education:

  • students who had taken advanced science courses;
  • students who were self-motivated to study science;
  • students who had parents with relatively higher levels of educational attainment; and
  • students who had parents with high expectations for their children's college education.
Once these key factors were held constant-that is, comparing racial/ethnic and gender groups with similar attributes in these measures-the racial/ethnic and gender differences among S&E majors tended to get smaller.

Additional findings related to S&E entry include the following:

  • A separate analysis of the male students confirmed that the racial/ethnic gap in majoring in S&E among men steadily closes when comparing students who had similar motivation, aspirations, and confidence regarding math and science; who had earned similar total and advanced credits in the subjects; and whose parents' educational attainment and expectation for their child's education were similar.
  • Since the broad gender gap only narrowed to a limited extent after examining family environment and support, student behavior, and school factors, it was hypothesized that traditional values that emphasize marriage, family, and children, in contrast to "nontraditional" views that stress individual success and independence, might make a difference in female students' career choice. However, the results did not support this hypothesis.
  • A separate analysis of white and Asian students revealed no different pattern of gender gap from that found in the overall analysis.
Persistence and attainment in the S&E pipeline

The second analysis yields important findings regarding underrepresented minority and female students' status in and out of the S&E pipeline.

  • While the racial/ethnic gap is not as obvious as the gender gap in enrolling as S&E majors, underrepresented minority students face greater difficulties in S&E programs.
  • Among the students enrolled in S&E programs in the first year of postsecondary education, underrepresented minority students seemed to have difficulty attaining a degree in S&E fields within a 5-year college calendar. Some of them had to switch to other fields. However, data did not show racial/ethnic differences in college dropout rates among these S&E students.
  • The racial gap remained wide even after the multiple regression analysis considered theoretically important predictors of success, a finding that implies that more extensive factors should be examined in order to understand the racial/ethnic difference in S&E attainment and persistence, including a detailed analysis of course-taking patterns.
  • Female students in S&E programs did not fall behind in the pipeline; they actually were more likely than male students to complete an S&E degree and less likely to switch to a non-S&E program. This finding suggests that although women are less likely than men to enter S&E, those women who do enter S&E fields are likely to do well. Further, among students enrolled in 4-year S&E programs in the first year of college, women tend to have strong family support, high expectations, healthy self-confidence, and solid academic preparation.

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Data sources: The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth Graders (NELS:1988/1994) and the 1990 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS: 1990/1994)

For technical information, see the complete report:

Huang, G., Taddese, N., and Walter, E. (2000). Entry and Persistence of Women and Minorities in College Science and Engineering Education (NCES 2000-601).

Author affiliation: G. Huang, N. Taddese, and E. Walter, Synectics for Management Decisions, Inc.

For questions about content, contact Peggy Quinn (

To obtain this complete report (NCES 2000-601), call the toll-free ED Pubs number (877-433-7827), visit the NCES Web Site (, or contact GPO (202-512-1800).

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