Interest in STEM Flat Among Graduates, with Severe Gaps Seen Among Underprivileged Groups

In spite of a concerted effort by educators, parents and policymakers over the last several years, STEM interest among high school graduates has remained virtually unchanged. Over the last six years, just under half of those who have taken the ACT test (48 percent to 49 percent) have indicated their intention to enter a STEM major or occupation during the test registration process or shown interest in the activities suggestive of a STEM interest. One in five students (21 percent) has shown test-measured readiness to succeed in a first-year college STEM course.

ACT, which produces assessments and exam practice products for pre-college and post-secondary students, shared those findings and others in a new set of reports that focused on science, technology, engineering and math education for the graduating class of 2017. Along with a national summary, the reports also include state-specific findings.

The share of ACT-tested 2017 high school graduates who showed interest in STEM and met the ACT STEM benchmark. Source:

The share of ACT-tested 2017 high school graduates who showed interest in STEM and met the ACT STEM benchmark. Source: "STEM Education in the U.S.: Where We Are and What We Can Do | 2017" from ACT

Among those students who express or demonstrate a measured interest in STEM, they're generally better prepared for college classes in those topics than the general high schooler. For example, while 48 percent of the former met the math benchmark in ACT's 2017 testing, just 34 percent of all ACT-tested high schoolers did.

Few graduates show any interest in becoming STEM teachers. Among all ACT-tested graduates who indicated interest in STEM, less than half a percent (0.43 percent) reported that they intend to enter a math education program; and just 0.17 percent said the same about science education.

The data analysis also uncovered how deep the STEM disadvantage is for students from low-income families or specific races or ethnicities or who will be first-generation college students. Among students who fit none of those criteria, 32 percent met the ACT STEM benchmark. Among those who fit one criteria, 11 percent met the benchmark; for those who met two of the criteria, 5 percent also met the benchmark; and among those who fit all three criteria, 2 percent hit the benchmark. According to the report, "on average, first-generation college students who are from a racial/ethnic minority group and a low-income family are 16 times less likely to be ready for credit-bearing STEM coursework in college than the group of students who are not considered underserved."

The research also identified achievement gaps among male and female students and among those from rural or small town vs. suburban vs. urban areas.

The proportions of ACT-tested 2017 high school graduates who met ACT college readiness benchmarks, by gender and expressed interest in STEM. Source:

The proportions of ACT-tested 2017 high school graduates who met ACT college readiness benchmarks, by gender and expressed interest in STEM. Source: "STEM Education in the U.S.: Where We Are and What We Can Do | 2017" from ACT

The report offered four recommendations to help address the expected shortfall in STEM professionals:

  • To emphasize the "importance of rigorous science and math courses," including three years of math and three years of science;
  • To pay teachers more in order to attract additional people to STEM teaching positions;
  • To establish a "loan forgiveness program," particularly for STEM teachers that would forgive the average yearly debt the teacher had accumulated while acquiring their degrees; and
  • To offer "equitable access" to high-quality math and science courses and work experiences for all students through dual-enrollment programs, with an emphasis on "high- and middle-skill jobs," such as those in the healthcare professions, financial operations and computer and math science fields.

The report is openly available on the ACT website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.