ACT report gives schools new tools to recruit and retain STEM students

A new report offers actionable information that can help institutions recruit and retain students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to Steve Kappler, Assistant Vice President and Head of Postsecondary Strategy at ACT.

Released last Wednesday, The Condition of STEM 2013 reveals an untapped pool of students who have an interest in STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) but are not planning to pursue a STEM caree.r The data point to a gap between interests and intentions that, if addressed, could help put more students on the path to STEM careers.

“The good news is that student interest in STEM is high overall,” said Jon Erickson, ACT President of Education and Career Solutions. “The bad news is that a sizable number of students may not be connecting the dots between their innate interests and a potential STEM-related career.”

What the numbers show

The ACT national and state report series, The Condition of STEM 2013, examines the expressed and measured interests of high school graduates in the class of 2013 who took the ACT® college readiness exam. Expressed interest is when students say they intend to pursue a particular major or occupation. Measured interest, in contrast, is derived from students’ responses to the ACT Interest Inventory, a battery of questions that measures preferences for different types of work tasks.

A total of 48 percent of the ACT-tested 2013 graduates had expressed and/or measured interest in STEM, including 16.3 percent who had both. Twenty-three percent had only expressed interest, planning to pursue a STEM career even though their inventory results suggest that other fields may be better aligned to their interests. But nearly one out of every 10 graduates (9 percent) had only measured interest in STEM; they had no plans to pursue a STEM major or career despite their innate interest.

Build a recruitment plan with data

“This report gives people a state-by-state understanding of academic achievement levels in math and science,” Kappler said. “It lets you know which states are achieving at higher levels and can help you round out a class based on STEM majors.”

Admissions professionals can build recruitment plans within specific states. This report is unique in that it combines academic achievement level and interest levels as well. We’re looking at students interested in STEM fields – as defined within report – and including 94 different majors within ACT choice set that fall into those categories.

For admissions folks, pages 11, 15, 19 and 23 contain a list the number of students interested in specific STEM majors/occupations, and is done state by state. “It’s really the first time that this kind of data and information has been available,” Kappler says.

What does this mean for retention?

“I think that this data is just the tip of the iceberg,” Kappler said. “Institutions that utilize the data when a student sends their score report to the institutions have almost 300 pieces of data about an incoming student that can really impact the interventions you use with a student to help align them with proper institutional support services sooner and help to increase retention rates.”

“The report allows you to identify a recruitment pockets, then once the students send scores, you have more data with which to help students succeed on your campus,” he says. If students are able to find the right major, they’re more likely to complete their degrees and even go on to graduate school. Selecting a career that matches interests can help students succeed. Previous ACT research has shown that when students’ interests are aligned with their chosen college majors, they are more likely to remain in their major, persist in college and complete their degree in a timely manner.

Identify STEM interests earlier

ACT’s report also points to a gap between STEM interest and preparation. Around half or more of the 2013 ACT-tested graduates planning to pursue STEM majors and careers were not ready to succeed in first-year math or science coursework in college. Readiness was significantly higher, however, among students with both expressed and measured interest than among those with only expressed interest.

“Our goal at ACT is to have this sort of information available to students earlier,” Kappler said. “As nice as it is to have this information, the achievement levels in these areas are still too low. Only 39 percent of students interested in these fields are meeting all four benchmarks—that needs to improve. To make a real impact, we need to intervene in lower grades. We want them to be achieving at higher levels and completing the necessary coursework. We don’t want students to get to 11th grade without knowing they had this inherent interest and realize that did not have adequate coursework and preparation to get them into that post-secondary major. We want them to be ready for post-secondary when they get there.”

“Nothing is more costly to the nation than untapped potential, and that’s why we must do more to ensure that all students understand the career opportunities that match their interests, particularly those that exist in important STEM fields,” said Erickson. “If we can identify students earlier and then keep them engaged, they may be more likely to choose a STEM career.”

A number of national reports have pointed to a need for more workers in STEM fields. A recent report from the Bayer Corporation’s Facts of Science Education survey suggests Fortune 1000 companies are struggling to fill STEM positions due to a shortage of qualified candidates. And a 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology concluded that the need for STEM professionals will significantly outweigh the availability of those workers over the next decade if current trends continue.

The STEM job outlook is strong, and STEM occupations tend to be high paying, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the recently released U.S. News & World Report 100 Best Jobs of 2014, more than half of the top 50 jobs are STEM related.

The Condition of STEM 2013 reports for the nation and for each state can be accessed for free on ACT’s website at

More readiness information at the AACRAO Annual Meeting

Hear more about “The Reality of Readiness” at Steve Kappler’s presentation at AACRAO’s 100th Annual Meeting in Denver, March 30-April 2, 2014. The presentation will cover importance and value of college and career readiness and discuss the role all types of readiness play in postsecondary progression. To learn more about the varied and informative sessions and to register, click here.