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US Needs STEM Grads? Small Colleges Produce Them!

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The White House, the Department of Education and industry leaders and others have expressed concern that America is not producing enough college graduates in the "STEM" fields (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The U.S. has many of the greatest research universities in the world. It seems natural to think that they would have great success in graduating students in the science and technology disciplines.

Guess what? America's small, private colleges are actually much more successful than many of their larger counterparts in graduating students who major in the sciences and (perhaps even more surprising) in producing graduates who go on to earn PhDs in these technical fields. As the former president of a small, liberal arts college best known for producing authors and actors, I was aware that my institution (and other small, private institutions) also did very well in preparing scientists. Now we have empirical research documenting just how well.

The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) has just released a report detailing the surprising facts. Here are a couple of eye-opening examples. (The full report can be found here.)

• At small private institutions, 80 percent of graduates in STEM fields earned their bachelor's degrees in 4 years or less, compared with 34 percent at public 4-year (non-doctoral) institutions and 52 percent at public 4-year (doctoral) institutions.

• Graduates of Wooster (enrollment: 1,900) earned PhDs in chemistry at almost twice the rate (28 percent vs. 15 percent) of graduates of the flagship state university (enrollment: 37,600) over the 5-year period 2006-2010.

• During that same period, 25 percent of graduates with biology degrees from Swarthmore (enrollment: 1,500), Grinnell (enrollment: 1,500), and Oberlin (enrollment: 2,900) went on to earn PhDs. For the public flagship universities in their respective states, the PhD attainment in biology during that period ranged from 8 percent to 16 percent (for undergraduate enrollments ranging from 20,200 to 37,600).

• Graduates in computer science from DePauw (enrollment: 2,400) received PhDs in computer science at twice the rate of graduates of the flagship university in the state (enrollment: 30,300).

These are just a few selected examples of the data presented in the CIC report. Why is a small college like DePauw or Wooster more effective (and efficient) in producing tomorrow's scientists and engineers? There are many related reasons for this outcome.

First, the median student/faculty ratio in small colleges is about 14 to 1. That means much more personal attention from faculty than a student can typically receive in a university with enrollment in the tens of thousands. Personal interaction makes an important difference in a student's persistence. If Joanna is having difficulty mastering a concept or has fallen behind in completing problem sets, it may go unnoticed in a class of hundreds -- or the instructor may simply not have the time to provide individualized attention. In the small college environment, the instructor will not only notice the difficulty, but is likely to offer one-on-one instruction, perhaps during extra office hours.

Second, the instructor will likely be a full-time faculty member with a PhD, not a graduate student teaching assistant. The "TA" may or may not aspire to be a teacher. Either way, the major job for a graduate student is completing his or her PhD, not teaching undergraduates. For the small college faculty member, teaching undergraduates IS the job; it's the profession he or she has chosen. Both in hiring and in evaluating faculty members, small colleges place a greater emphasis on teaching and mentoring undergraduates than do most research institutions -- where a faculty member's ability to obtain grants, work with graduate students, and publish research is paramount.

Third, today's science faculty in small colleges are also researchers -- but they often shape their research agendas specifically to enable undergraduate participation. This means that, in the small college environment, an undergraduate is likely to have hands-on lab experience as early as the freshman year and perhaps even to co-author a publication before graduating. In the large research institutions, these opportunities typically go to the graduate students and post-docs, not undergraduates. Many times I heard from our alumni how much better-prepared they were to hit the ground running than their fellow graduate students from institutions where they hadn't had research opportunities as undergrads.

The result? The data are clear -- small, private colleges offer "more bang for the buck" in producing STEM graduates. I hope that parents, aspiring science students, and our nation's policy makers take note.

The STEM report was prepared as a component of CIC's public information campaign, Securing America's Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education. The initiative promotes the effectiveness and contributions of private liberal arts colleges and universities and the importance of the liberal arts as fields of study. Follow the campaign Twitter feed, @SmartColleges.