This question has been running through my head since reading, “’Different People Have Different Prioirties’: Work-family Balance, Gender, and the Discourse of Choice” by Beddoes and Pawley in Studies in Higher Education. The article reports on an investigation of the continuing underrepresentation of women faculty in STEM fields. Both female and male faculty interviewees expressed that women have the freedom to choose whether to stay in academics or not. Yet, the women also described how the academic system and social norms are stacked against them if they want to have a partner and/or children. The researchers observe: “Here, then, we can see choice as an inadequate notion serving to mask or ‘deproblematize’ structural inequalities, thus relinquishing higher education administers [sic] from responsibility for change” (p.1581).
I have seen a similar limitation of choice among undergraduates who leave STEM majors from the reading I’ve done on the topic. Although structural inequalities for women and minorities who attempt to stick with STEM are well-documented, I want to focus today on inequalities that impact fiscally disadvantaged students. Many of the activities proven to support STEM persistence are only available to students who attend school full-time and live on-campus. Examples are doing volunteer work or unpaid internships in campus labs, participating in student study groups and organizations, interacting with faculty outside of class time, and residing in living-learning dorms.
At my university, many of the students take classes part-time and work part- or full-time to pay for their education. The vast majority of students commute from rental housing or their parents’ homes to save money on living expenses. These students don’t have the luxury of having coffee with a professor, or living and socializing with students who are also STEM majors, because they are trying to make ends meet. Yes, there is financial aid, but it frequently involves taking on crushing loan debt that may be difficult to pay off in the current economy.
So are working or commuting students who leave STEM for non-STEM majors simply making an independent choice to enter a field better-suited to them? I would argue the choice is not independent, but heavily influenced by their socio-economic status. Because they don’t fit the expensive “full-time, on-campus” student paradigm, they are cut off from academic and social support needed to succeed in STEM majors. I would encourage higher education administrators to seriously examine a system that appears to work against disadvantaged STEM students, no matter how intelligent or motivated they are.
Categories: Disadvantaged students
Tags: Studies in Higher Education; Kacey Beddoes; Alice L. Pawley
Photo attribution: “Happiness Is a Choice,” by Laura Grace Bordeaux, 2011. Licensed through Creative Commons.