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  • The Contradictory Roles of Institutional Status in Retaining Underrepresented Minorities in Biomedical and Behavioral Science Majors
  • Mitchell J. Chang (bio), Oscar Cerna (bio), June Han (bio), and Victor Sàenz (bio)

In 2006, the U.S. Congress held numerous hearings about why the proportion of undergraduates taking studies in the hard sciences was declining. Those concerns were driven in part by interests in preserving the nation's economic competitiveness and position in technological leadership. Some legislators have called the American science pipeline "leakier than warped rubber tubing" (Epstein, 2006). Indeed, roughly half of those undergraduates who show an initial interest in majoring in the sciences switch out of these fields within their first two years of study, and very few non-science majors switch to science majors (Center for Institutional Data Exchange and Analysis, 2000). The rates of science major completion for underrepresented minority students (African American, Latino, and Native American) are even [End Page 433] more dismal. Looking at degree attainment, only 24% of underrepresented students who begin college as a science major complete a bachelor's degree in science within six years of college entry, as compared to 40% of White students (Center for Institutional Data Exchange and Analysis, 2000).

Moreover, the Sullivan Commission (2004) reported that the gap in participation rates between underrepresented minority students (URMs) and their White and Asian peers widens at the graduate and professional school levels. Nelson (2004), for example, reported that between 1993 and 2002, African Americans accounted for only 2.6% of earned doctorates in biological sciences, whereas Latinos accounted for 3.6%. In 2002, only 122 African Americans and 178 Latinos received doctorates in biological sciences compared to 3,114 Whites and 580 Asians. When considering future generations of scientists and health care professionals, the Sullivan Commission declared underrepresented minorities to be "missing persons" in those fields. Retaining more URM undergraduate science majors would certainly help in reversing these trends.

The overarching purpose of our study is to examine factors that contribute to the chances of retaining underrepresented minority students in an undergraduate biomedical or behavioral science major. Of particular interest is the extent to which institutional status, as related to undergraduate selectivity, student perceptions, and other institutional characteristics, affects those chances of retention, given that this issue is relevant to current policy debates regarding access to quality higher education. Policies such as race-conscious admissions practices, for example, attempt to increase the proportion of URM students attending the most selective colleges and universities.

We employ two differing theoretical viewpoints about the impact of such policies on college students' chances of academic success to inform and frame this study. According to anticipatory socialization theory (Kamens, 1981), attending "higher status" institutions should improve one's chances of persisting. Conversely, the "mismatch hypothesis" (Sowell, 1993; Thernstrom, 1995) claims that URM students lower their odds of achieving their initial educational goals when they attend highly selective institutions where the White and Asian students are academically better prepared. By extension, applying race-conscious admissions in higher education mismatches URM students and dampens their academic or career aspirations. This study will empirically examine this running debate in the context of concerns raised about our nation's capacity to fulfill our science-related interests, especially as they relate to the growing presence of the racial/ethnic minority populations in U.S. society. [End Page 434]


According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2001), three of the most important variables contributing to undergraduate degree completion in the sciences are the intensity and quality of high school curriculum, test scores, and class rank or grade point average in high school. However, undergraduate students who major in science, math, and engineering (SME) majors are usually better prepared than students in other majors (Seymour, 1992). Even though students are particularly vulnerable to changing their initial educational course during the first year of college (Tinto, 1993; Upcraft & Gardner, 1989), SME majors are even more likely than their counterparts to switch majors, as noted earlier.

There is a voluminous body of research regarding undergraduate student persistence (see, for example, Astin, 1993; Braxton, 2000; Hurtado, in press; Nora, Barlow, & Crisp, 2005; Tinto, 1993). A few important points relevant to...


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