1. Skip to content

Fewer Women Studying STEM at Community Colleges

The number of women earning associate degrees at community college in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has decreased over the past 10 years, despite an increasing demand for skilled STEM workers. "There has been a 25 percent drop in the proportion of STEM degrees awarded to women at the community college level in this period," said Cynthia Costello, from the International Women's Policy Research (IWRP).

In 1997, women earned 34 percent of two-year degrees but that number dropped to 28 percent in 2007, according to the report. Although women comprise nearly half of the labor force, only one in four STEM jobs is held by a woman.

Many STEM jobs pay well and don't require a four-year degree, including careers as environmental engineering technicians, biological technicians and computer support specialists, the report said. However, the number of women pursuing STEM certificates at community colleges has also dropped. Based on federal data, the share of women receiving short- and medium-term certificates - both requiring less than two years to complete - in STEM fields decreased by half between 2000 - 2001 and 2008 - 2009, according to the report. Only a small proportion of associate degrees in STEM fields are awarded to women of color, including African-American women (3.3 percent), Hispanic women (2.2 percent), and Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women (1.3 percent).

"As the nation works to improve access to community college credentials, it is critical that women and people of color have equal access to high-quality degrees, such as those in STEM fields, that lead to family-sustaining wages," Barbara Gault, vice president and executive director of IWPR.

Education advocates note that community college students face unique challenges - such as balancing jobs and families in addition to academics - which can be taxing. The report highlights promising practices at community colleges that are helping to retain students, especially in STEM programs, ranging from student aid to student services. For example, Florence-Darlington Technical College in South Carolina offers on-campus child care until 11 p.m., while developmental education courses offered at community and technical colleges in Washington integrate basic skills instruction with technical courses linked to career pathways in STEM. Reversing current trends in women's pursuit of STEM sub baccalaureate degrees and certificates will require community colleges to proactively recruit and retain female students.

The study, "Increasing Opportunities For Low-Income Women And Student Parents In Science, Technology, Engineering, And Math At Community Colleges" cited several general recruitment strategies:

  • Build relationships with prospective female students through activities such as peer mentoring, and hold workshops led by women faculty and scientists.
  • Offer information about financial aid, child care and other support services, as well as the availability of internships and apprenticeships in STEM programs.
  • Reach out to women who are already enrolled and taking courses, especially through career and academic counseling of first-year college women who are still exploring prospective majors.

Source: Community College Times, 3/20/12