Strengthening the STEM Pipeline: The Contributions of Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges

Strengthening STEM Pipeline report cover

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) expertise is necessary to sustain American competitiveness in the global economy. Many assume that research universities, especially public institutions, are the backbone of American efforts to prepare undergraduate students in STEM fields and that these institutions are fulfilling this responsibility. This report demonstrates that many small and mid-sized independent colleges are preparing postsecondary students for a career and/or graduate study in STEM fields, and they are doing so in a more efficient way than larger institutions, contrary to public assumptions about the importance of scale.

Report findings suggest that, as a sector, small and mid-sized private institutions perform better than public institutions in students’ persistence and undergraduate degree completion rates in STEM fields and they substantially outperform public nondoctoral institutions. Small and mid-sized private colleges also perform better on the time-to-degree metric, as an overwhelming proportion (80 percent) of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM fields earned their degrees in four years or less at these institutions, compared with 34 percent at public four-year nondoctoral institutions and 52 percent at public four-year doctoral institutions. Study results also suggest that STEM graduates of small and mid-sized private colleges are more likely to plan to attend graduate school and just as likely to enroll immediately in a graduate program as their peers who graduated from larger public universities.

The productivity and efficiency of small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities are further demonstrated by comparisons between specific private colleges and larger research universities. Report findings indicate that in many individual academic disciplines, small and mid-sized colleges produce as many or more science majors who obtain PhDs than large research universities. For example, the number of students graduating from Allegheny College (Meadville, PA; 1,849 undergraduate enrollment) who later received doctorates in chemistry between 2006 and 2010 was 25, an output comparable to that of two nearby research universities. During the same period, 30 graduates of the University of Pittsburgh (17,413 undergraduate enrollment) and 25 graduates of Carnegie Mellon University (5,484 undergraduate enrollment) obtained doctorates in chemistry. Moreover, a higher percentage of students who attained a baccalaureate degree in chemistry from Allegheny College between 2001 and 2005 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).

Report findings suggest similar results in the biological sciences. For example, one out of every four graduates in biological sciences from Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA; 1,500 undergraduate enrollment), Haverford College (Haverford, PA; 1,163 undergraduate enrollment), Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA; 1,524 undergraduate enrollment), and Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH; 2,907 undergraduate enrollment) went on to complete a PhD, a rate higher than that of the large public research universities in their respective states: Pennsylvania State University (16 percent; 35,002 undergraduate enrollment), the University of Iowa (13 percent; 20,233 undergraduate enrollment), Iowa State University (10 percent; 22,230 undergraduate enrollment), and Ohio State University (8 percent; 37,605 undergraduate enrollment). Additional results in computer science, physics, and mathematics and statistics confirm that a number of smaller private colleges produce a higher percentage of science majors who pursue PhDs in STEM fields than many large research universities produce.

At a time when federal and state officials have made a priority of increasing the number of Americans with advanced degrees in STEM fields and when state and federal spending is under increasing pressure, the educational effectiveness and contributions of small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities in meeting these national goals must not be overlooked. Indeed, the most cost-effective strategy for increasing the supply of STEM workers for the U.S. economy is to reduce college student attrition in STEM fields. In order to reap the full benefits of a strong STEM workforce through higher education, policy makers should assist the sector of education in which colleges and universities have demonstrated that they can prepare many people for STEM careers effectively and efficiently—namely, small and mid-sized private colleges.

​Council of Independent Colleges
By P. Jesse Rine and Wei Song
March 2014

Student Outcomes; STEM