New CIC Report Documents Superior Performance of Independent Colleges in Preparing Students for STEM Careers

3/18/2014 — Washington, DC

​​The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) today released a report, Strengthening the STEM Pipeline: The Contributions of Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges, that demonstrates that small and mid-sized independent institutions are preparing students for careers and graduate study in STEM fields more efficiently than many public universities.

The full report is available as a PDF at
CIC President Richard Ekman said, “This study shows persuasively that small and mid-sized private colleges are more effective at producing both bachelor’s degree-level and future PhD-level professionals in STEM fields than other kinds of educational institutions. That is, the absolute numbers of PhD recipients are impressive and, as a percentage of students who start out to major in one of these fields, the record of small colleges is extraordinary.” He added, “In today’s tight budget climate, it is incumbent on private, state, and federal funders to build on demonstrated efficiency of this kind rather than expending hard-to-find tax and philanthropic dollars on less effective ways of producing an equivalent number of STEM professionals.”
Contrary to popular assumptions, the report shows that smaller private colleges have higher student persistence and degree completion rates in STEM fields and shorter time to the bachelor’s degree than larger universities. Bachelor’s degree recipients from small and mid-sized independent institutions in the STEM fields also are more often committed to further education at the time of graduation, and many of them immediately enroll in graduate programs after obtaining bachelor’s degrees. And graduates of private colleges are more likely to pursue doctoral degrees in STEM fields than graduates of public four-year institutions. In some of the STEM fields, small and mid-sized independent colleges produce more graduates who obtain PhDs than much larger research universities.
P. Jesse Rine, CIC’s director of research projects and principal author of the report, said, “Many assume that America’s large research universities provide the clearest pathway to a career in a STEM field. On the contrary, the report demonstrates that students who graduate from small and mid-sized private colleges are more likely to persist in their major, graduate on time, and pursue graduate work in STEM. These findings suggest that students can enjoy the distinctive characteristics of a liberal arts undergraduate college experience—smaller classes, more personal attention from faculty, and an integrated curriculum—without compromising their prospects for future employment or graduate study.” 
Report Findings. The data suggest that, as a sector, small and mid-sized private institutions performed better than public institutions in students’ persistence and undergraduate degree completion rates in STEM fields and they substantially outperformed public nondoctoral institutions. In addition, STEM graduates of small and mid-sized private colleges are just as likely to enroll in a graduate program as their peers who graduated from larger public universities.
  • At small and mid-sized independent institutions, 80 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM fields earned their degrees in four years or less, compared with 34 percent at public four-year nondoctoral institutions and 52 percent at public four-year doctoral institutions.
  • A much larger proportion (57 percent) of graduates in STEM fields from small and mid-sized independent institutions planned to apply to graduate school upon receipt of their bachelor’s degrees, compared with slightly more than 40 percent of graduates from public four-year institutions.
  • One-fifth (19 percent) of the bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM fields from small and mid-sized independent institutions immediately enrolled in master’s or doctoral degree programs after obtaining their bachelor’s degrees, a comparable percentage with public four-year doctoral institutions (22 percent) and exceeding that of public four-year nondoctoral institutions (14 percent).
Efficiency by Institution and Discipline. The productivity and efficiency of small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities is further demonstrated in the rates of attaining PhDs in STEM fields by comparisons among specific institutions and disciplines. For example:
  • A higher percentage of students who attained bachelor’s degrees in chemistry from Allegheny College (PA) subsequently completed a PhD in the discipline (36 percent) than did graduates from the University of Pittsburgh (13 percent) or Carnegie Mellon University (24 percent). And despite Allegheny’s significantly smaller undergraduate enrollment, the number of its graduates who later received doctorates in chemistry was 25–comparable with 25 graduates of Carnegie Mellon and 30 of Pitt.
  • In the biological sciences, one out of every four graduates from Swarthmore (PA), Haverford (PA), Grinnell (IA), and Oberlin (OH) colleges went on to complete a PhD, a rate higher than that of the large public research universities in their respective states: Penn State (16 percent), University of Iowa (13 percent), Iowa State (10 percent), and Ohio State (8 percent).
  • Although Bucknell University (PA) enrolled fewer than one-tenth of the number of undergraduates as its nearby public flagship university, computer science majors who graduated from Bucknell were twice as likely to complete a doctoral degree than their peers who completed undergraduate studies in computer science at Penn State (6 percent vs. 3 percent).
Other Findings of Note 
  • Two out of five STEM PhD recipients in the U.S. obtained bachelor’s degrees from foreign institutions, suggesting that the U.S. still has a long way to go to produce “home grown” scientists.
  • Among PhD recipients in STEM fields who earned bachelor’s degrees from U.S. four-year institutions, 20 percent earned their bachelor’s degrees from small and mid-sized independent institutions, a share that exceeds this sector’s overall production of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields (17 percent).
Blackburn College alumna Dr. Elisabeth Gantt, Distinguished University Professor Emerita, University of Maryland, College Park, and Member of the National Academy of Sciences, said of the report:
“The results of the study Strengthening the STEM Pipeline: The Contribution of Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges are fully consistent with my personal experience. Years ago when I graduated from a small college (Blackburn College) all my colleague biology graduates went on directly for advanced degrees. As a teacher and researcher in larger institutions it has been a privilege to mentor both undergraduate and graduate students. Yet, the individual attention that most students thrive on is hard to duplicate with hundreds of students. As a former graduate director over many years, I also found that a proportionately larger number of successful graduate school entrants were from small and mid-size colleges.”
American chemist and D’Youville College (NY) alumna Edith M. Flanigen spent 42 years at Union Carbide, and while there invented more than 200 synthetic substances and was awarded 109 patents. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002, was the first female recipient of the Perkin Medal (the highest honor given in the U.S. industrial chemical industry) in 1992, and is known for her work on synthesis of emeralds. Commenting on the impact that a small college had on her unusual career choice as a scientist in the 1950s when female scientists were rare, Flanigen said:
“I graduated from D’Youville College, a small private women’s Catholic college in Buffalo, NY, in 1950. I was educated there in my major, chemistry, as well as in the liberal arts. Both prepared me excellently for a very successful career in materials chemistry in industry. I attribute my later success in an industrial setting to the combination of a sound basic education in both science and liberal arts at a small private college.”
Policy Recommendations. In order to reap the full benefits of a strong STEM workforce, the report recommends that policy makers should assist higher education institutions that have demonstrated that they can prepare many people for STEM careers effectively and efficiently—namely smaller private colleges. Proposed policy changes might include:
  • Provide additional federal funding to students who major in STEM fields at small and mid-sized private colleges to maximize efficient production of undergraduate degrees in STEM fields and of future scientists;
  • Allow students who wish to major in a STEM field to receive at least as much state financial aid for use at private colleges that have demonstrated equivalent efficiency in degree production as their in-state flagship research university;
  • Foster partnerships among high schools, businesses, and community organizations to identify promising students and encourage special programs and funding for both their STEM education at small and mid-sized private colleges and their future entry into the U.S. STEM workforce; and
  • Create incentives through tax relief for businesses to provide specialized laboratory equipment to small and mid-sized private colleges to shorten transition time from the classroom to the workplace.
This 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 quality of private liberal arts colleges and universities and the importance of the liberal arts as fields of study. In addition to this report, the campaign includes a website with related news, social media activity, data and analyses, editorials, speeches, alumni testimonials, and additional reports. Generous support for Securing America’s Future is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, and Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

​The Council of Independent Colleges is an association of 744 nonprofit independent colleges and universities and higher education affiliates and organizations that has worked since 1956 to support college and university leadership, advance institutional excellence, and enhance public understanding of private higher education’s contributions to society. CIC is the major national organization that focuses on providing services to leaders of independent colleges and universities as well as conferences, seminars, and other programs that help institutions to improve the quality of education, administrative and financial performance, and institutional visibility. CIC also provides support to state fundraising associations that organize programs and generate contributions for private colleges and universities. The Council is headquartered at One Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.​