Reducing Attrition from STEM Disciplines: Understanding the Student Athlete’s Perspective

Institutional data show that a significant number of students at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU)—a public, rural Historically Black University—who identify as STEM (biology, chemistry, pharmaceutical science, computer, and mathematics) majors in the first year graduate with degrees in non-STEM disciplines. While this pattern of switching from STEM to other majors is true across all racial groups, it is much greater for African Americans and other underrepresented minorities (Eagan et al. 2011; Mervis 2010; Bettinger 2010; Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner 2011; National Science Board 2014). Sadly, this phenomenon has been identified by STEM educational researchers as a major obstacle for achieving the national goal of sufficiency in STEM graduates (Chen and Soldner 2013).

STEM literature asserts that poor academic performance in STEM courses relative to non-STEM courses is one of several reasons why students abandon pursuit of STEM disciplines (Rask 2010; Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner 2011). However, contextual factors such as institutional environments and resources are also known to produce similar outcomes (Fouad et al. 2010; Chang et al. 2011).

The hypothesis of this study is that attrition from a STEM discipline may be due to factors that are totally unrelated to a student’s intellectual ability. Identifying such factors and addressing them through cultural and institutional change may reduce attrition, improve retention, and, subsequently, increase the rate of graduation in the discipline. The key finding highlights a need for STEM departments to reassess the academic and cocurricular supports provided to students with extenuating educational burdens.

The conceptual underpinnings of this study are grounded in elements of the Association of American Universities’ (AAU) framework for systemic change in undergraduate STEM teaching and learning (2011). Also, through a leadership strategy that operates according to elements of the leadership frames described by Bolman and Gallos (2011)—including structural, political, human resources, and symbolic paradigms—the project stimulated cultural transformation among key stakeholders through advocacy for community purpose, responsibility, accountability, and morality, which are all relevant to the ethos of ECSU.


Study participants were ECSU sophomores and juniors who were non-STEM majors but previously had declared a major in biology, chemistry, pharmaceutical science, computer science, or mathematics. Because I was interested in exploring the reasons students depart STEM that are unrelated to academic potential, only students with cumulative GPAs above 2.5 were invited to participate. Eligible students were identified from a master data sheet from the university’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Planning and were invited by email to participate in the study.

To ensure collection of detailed data, interviews were guided by the principles of qualitative research described by Rossman and Rallis (2012), which encourage researchers to allow participants to share rich and detailed narratives from which important themes may emerge. To this end, study participants responded individually to two open-ended questions: one on their reason(s) for leaving the STEM major that they were initially enrolled in and the other on their reason(s) for selecting their current major. Prior to scheduled interviews, potential interviewees received copies of informed consent documents wherein study details and statements ensuring anonymity of participation were carefully documented. Information and notes by which students might be identified were kept confidential. The average length of interviews, which were scheduled at times that were most convenient for participants, was thirty minutes. During interview sessions, the interviewer diligently took comprehensive notes and validated the accuracy of the notes by a read-back technique before the sessions concluded. All interviews were conducted in the faculty researcher’s office, although students were given the opportunity to identify alternative locations if they considered this location inconvenient.

Interview notes were carefully reviewed, and responses to the first interview question were collated by themes into groups according to the qualitative research guidelines of Rossman and Rallis (2012). Groups of responses that directly or indirectly referred to the academic rigor of course content as the main reason for attrition were identified and eliminated. Those that pertained to issues with university-based teaching or learning resources were noted and subjected to additional review. Applicable reasons that were cited by more than one interviewee within each or in all the disciplines were recognized as issues to be addressed in postproject recommendations.


Data from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Planning showed that a total of forty-eight students who identified as biology, chemistry, pharmaceutical science, computer information science, engineering, technology, or mathematics majors at the time of admission changed their majors between the fall 2014 and spring 2018 semesters. Ten of these students had inter-STEM changes while the remaining thirty-eight changed to non-STEM majors. Thirty-one of those who changed to non-STEM majors were invited to participate in the study and seventeen were interviewed. Those interviewed provided a total of twelve reasons why they changed to non-STEM majors (table 1). Four of the twelve reasons (33 percent) were disregarded because they were cited by only one participant and the rest (eight of twelve, or 67 percent), which were each mentioned by at least two participants, were considered relevant. Results also show that all student-athlete participants cited inadequate accommodations as a primary reason for changing to non-STEM majors, arguing that lectures and labs missed during required athletic travel adversely impacted their academic performance and increased their risk of losing athletic scholarships.

Reasons Cited Number of Respondents Who Cited Reason Number of Respondents Likely to be Impacted Percent Impacted
1. Wanted to study what I liked 9 17 53%
2. Accommodation for student athletes 2 2 100%
3. Hard to understand teacher (accent) 2 17 12%
4. Hard to understand teacher (other reasons) 5 17 29%
5. Pace was very fast/too many credit hours per semester 6 17 35%
6. Not enough professors (one professor teaching most courses) 1 17 6%
7. More peer tutoring (peers explain concepts better) 3 17 18%
8. Testing didn‘t reflect what was taught 1 17 6%
9. Couldn’t see any future for me in the major/No job guarantee 9 17 53%
10. Didn‘t understand the major well before signing up 3 17 18%
11. Lost initial passion once had for the major 1 17 6%
12. Error—wasn’t supposed to be in major in the first place 1 17 4%


Many of the reasons provided by participants in this study (table 1) for leaving these STEM majors align well with existing literature. Study participants cited a loss of interest (Chang et al. 2011; Fouad et al. 2010; Thompson et al. 2007), instructor accent (Berrett 2012; Sanchez and Khan 2016; Subtirelu 2015), style of teaching and instructors’ inability to explain concepts clearly (Daempfle 2002; Marra et al. 2009; Johnson 2007; Geisinger and Raman 2013), pace of study (Sanabria and Penner 2017; Mervis 2010; Maltese and Tai 2011; Ellis, Fosdick, and Rasmussen 2016), lack of peer tutoring (Preszler 2009; Batz et al. 2015), and academic counseling (Berdahl 1995) as reasons for departing STEM majors. However, a potential lack of adequate and intentional accommodations for students with extenuating educational burdens, such as student athletes, as a possible contributor of STEM attrition has not been studied adequately, making this one of the most important findings of this study.

The findings of this study suggest that inadequate accommodations for students with extenuating educational burdens may be a major reason some students who are genuinely interested in STEM disciplines walk away from them. These are students who have circumstances that do not qualify as disabilities or clinical conditions that are accommodated under the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, they are personal burdens that are indispensably interwoven with their individual lives that present unavoidable challenges for learning within contexts of traditional formats of education. Extenuating educational burdens may manifest as excessive tardiness or absence from lectures and labs, poor student engagement, or failing grades.

In this study, two of the seventeen participants identified as student athletes. Both had to leave a STEM discipline because, according to one of them, “I keep missing lectures and labs, and the only way to catch up with what I missed in lectures is to look at the information on Blackboard, ask some of my friends, or go to office hours. Neither of these and sometimes all of them are not enough.”

Student athletes are one particular group of students with essential nonacademic responsibilities that qualify as extenuating burdens to education. Many of them are on athletic scholarships with stringent terms of performance and expectations for both athletics and academics. They are required to participate fully in trainings, athletic travel, and competitions while maintaining a certain level of academic standing. Participation in athletic responsibilities sometimes contributes to missing lectures or labs, encroaches on time to study and other essential components of a successful STEM education, contributes to poor test grades, and threatens athletic scholarship eligibility. The interdependency of the pressures student athletes face is the reason adequate accommodations in support of academic success are essential to retention and graduation.


It is imperative to call the attention of STEM departments to the subtle contributors of attrition that are often missing from major dialogues on the subject, including inadequate accommodation for students who truly deserve it (student athletes, working students, students with children, etc.). Some might argue that the small number of students who responded in this study render it statistically insignificant, while they point to anecdotes of student athletes who are successful in STEM (Neale, Grant, and Sachdev 2012). However, it is still noteworthy because the stereotypical presumption is that STEM disciplines and student athleticism are incompatible (Sailes 1993), and there is little scientific literature on strategies for attracting and retaining student athletes in STEM disciplines (Neale, Grant, and Sachdev 2012). Given the very structured nature of traditional methods of education used in STEM disciplines that often require presence and active participation of students, it is conceivable that the academic performance of students with extenuating educational burdens who are pursuing STEM disciplines could be adversely impacted in the absence of thoughtful accommodation plans. Adequate testing accommodation is the main consideration behind such concepts as assistive technologies, extended time, language interpreters, or reading aloud (Lin and Lin 2016). It meets the educational needs of all students, aligns perfectly with student-first and student-centered paradigms, and is a practical expression of commitment to student success.

While STEM instructors may make varying concessions to individuals with student-athlete circumstances such as exceptions to turn in assignments late, opportunities to make up exams or labs, and excused absences, this finding challenges the assumptions that STEM departments are doing enough to accommodate all students. I therefore recommend that STEM departments design, implement, and periodically assess intentional strategies for supporting students with various types of extenuating educational burdens and acknowledge their efforts as a practical approach to increasing STEM retention and graduation rates. The solutions that we seek may be hiding in plain sight.



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Anthony Emekalam, Associate Professor, Natural Sciences, Elizabeth City State University

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