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Managing Editor:Yolanda S.
Making Strides is a free, quarterly (April, July, October, and January) research newsletter published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program. Its purpose is to share information about minority graduate education in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. It is available in print and electronic format. Inquiries, information related to AGEP, and all correspondence should be sent to the editor.
|From Their Voices: American
Higher Education And The Phenomenon Of Stepping Out
By: Mary E. McAfee, Ph.D., Research Associate, Ethnography and Evaluation Research, Bureau of Sociological Research, University of Colorado
Colleges, universities, government agencies, and foundations are striving to recruit and retain numbers of underrepresented minority baccalaureate and graduate degree recipients in natural and physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics (SEM). To do so successfully, we must understand and build on the experiences of American Indians in higher education. American Indians were queried about their experiences as SEM majors in a broad-based qualitative study (McAfee, 1997). The phenomenon of “stepping out”* emerged as a conceptual framework to describe, explain, and predict the college-going patterns of American Indians in SEM majors. The model generates general and specific recommendations for improving retention rates of American Indians in undergraduate SEM programs.
Status of American Indians in Undergraduate SEM Majors
Statistical reports leading to analysis of the pipeline, or numbers of American Indians who are eligible to participate in higher education, and SEM majors in particular, are not easy to produce. However, it appears that the following observation made by William Tierney in 1992 remains true today. He suggested that if 100 students [American Indian] enter the ninth grade, 60 of them will graduate from high school and about 20 will enter a postsecondary institutions. Of those 20 students about three will receive a four-year degree (p.9). This represents a 15% pipeline retention rate and an 85% attrition rate at the postsecondary level. Combine this low retention rate and examination of the numbers of American Indians in SEM majors and numerical description becomes practically meaningless. However, examination of their voices and stories yields rich data that begin to explain and predict their paths in higher education.
Research data consisted of audio-taped interviews with 76 participants. Twenty-seven were step-outs (American Indians who had been enrolled in SEM and business undergraduate programs in four-year institutions and were no longer in school with no immediate plans to return) and 16 were graduates (American Indians who had earned baccalaureate degrees in SEM and business). Thirty-three faculty and administrators were also interviewed. Participants came from nine colleges and universities in eight states in the plains, northwest, and southwest regions of the country. Participants are affiliated with 29 tribes, bands, and pueblos. Nine reservations and pueblos were visited during the course of research.
Interviews lasted from 45 minutes to more than four hours. Word-for-word transcriptions of interviews were produced to facilitate data analysis and interpretation using the tenets of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Information about recruitment, enrollment, and graduation figures from institutions in the study were examined to supplement the interview process.
There have been a variety of models of college attendance of underrepresented minorities offered by other writers (Bean, 1982, Belgarde, 1992, Richardson and Skinner, 1991, and Tinto, 1975, 1987). Generally these models utilized four-, five-, and six-year cohorts to measure successful degree completion rates by American Indians and other underrepresented minorities. Available models appear to be linear in their presentation and the outcome is often described by phrases such as “drop-out,” “stop-out”, or “leaving decision.”
The Phenomenon of Stepping Out
The voices and stories of American Indians who had left SEM programs, graduates in SEM majors, and faculty and administrators who participated in the research were in agreement that moving in and out of colleges and universities is a typical attendance pattern of American Indians. The metaphor “stepping stone” comes from the words of participants to indicate progress towards graduation. Using a metaphor transcends local and specific circumstances, making the phenomenon applicable to other underrepresented ethnic groups in colleges and universities across the country.
The model (See Figure 1) of the phenomenon of stepping out that emerged from the research has several attributes that are different from the previously noted models of student attrition or college attendance.
Connections are made among the characteristics of the stepping stones, however, no particular stepping stone is singularly necessary and sufficient for the participants to remain in school. The arrow that traverses the middle of the model illustrates the fact that for some American Indians in SEM majors there is not a stepping-out period.
It is significant to note that in this research 37% of the step-outs talked about experiences that were seen by them as stepping stones towards attaining a four-year degree. In marked contrast, 68% of the graduates described circumstances that were directly described as stepping stones or interpreted in terms of stepping stones which contributed to their persistence to graduation.
The concept of progressive discovery can be described as the process of gaining personal knowledge in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life in order to find and maintain the necessary focus for completing undergraduate degrees in SEM majors. Progressive discovery is illustrated in the following remark made by a female graduate in environmental science who had attended two community colleges and two four-year institutions in the course of the ten years it took to earn her degree.
Giving Voice to the Phenomenon of Stepping OutAmong all participants in the study, eight stepping stones emerged as significant elements in the experiences of American Indians in higher education: cultural identity, academic preparation, financial resources, motivation, family support, academic performance, alcohol and drug use, and institutional interface. Of the eight stepping stones, cultural identity became a prominent factor with direct and indirect ties to other stepping stones. Participant voices and stories provide insight into the importance of maintaining strong bonds with traditional tribal heritage. It is striking to note that of the step-outs, 22% perceived themselves to have strong cultural identity while 50% of the graduates identified strongly with their cultural heritage. Two illustrative quotes follow. The first words are those of a female graduate in computer science whose time in and out of higher education spanned eight years and three universities.
We have Indian students, whose grades in high school Algebra and Calculus are very high, yet on this campus we seem to move through their academic background in the first 3 or 4 weeks of class. By mid-semester they are lost and unless they get some help they are likely to fail those beginning math classes. Failing prerequisite math classes holds up their progress into a science or engineering major and often leads them to leaving school.
An electrical engineering graduate who related the following course of events underscored the value of summer bridge programs.
Recommendations for Colleges, Universities, and Funding AgenciesGeneral recommendations:
Implications of the Phenomenon of Stepping OutThis research is significant for higher education because it highlights the necessity for administrators and faculty to understand this mode of college attendance of American Indians as colleges and universities work to recruit and retain these students in SEM majors. It is essential to understand that stepping out does not imply the departure from the broad system of higher education, indeed, it implies continuation at a later time. This research illustrates the need to grasp the interrelatedness of circumstances and that although the personal decision to leave school may hinge on one critical incident, the underlying factors are related to a variety of interactions with and among individuals, families, communities, groups, and organizations.
There is clear evidence of “official encouragement and institutional
discouragement.” American Indians and other ethnic minorities are
encouraged to enroll in colleges and universities as these institutions
strive to have student populations whose characteristics reflect the nation’s
changing demographics. However, without an understanding of institutional
discouragement that fails to recognize and support the phenomenon of stepping
out, there is a serious lack of systemic commitment to the spirit and intent
of increasing diversity on campuses. Without widespread institutional
change, American Indians will continue to be underrepresented in higher
education in SEM fields.
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Belgarde, M. (1992). The performance and persistence of American Indian undergraduate students at Stanford University. Dissertation Abstracts International, 53, 1412.
Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.
McAfee, M. (1997). From their voices: American Indians in higher education and the phenomenon of stepping out. (Doctoral Dissertation, Colorado State University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 58, 06A.
National Science Foundation. (1999). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 1998. Arlington, VA. (NSF 99-338).
Richardson, R.C., Jr., & Skinner, E.F. (1991). Achieving quality and diversity: Universities in a multicultural society. New York: Macmillian Publishing Company.
Tierney, W.G. (1992). Official encouragement institutional discouragement: Minorities in academe - the Native American Experience. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45 (1), 89-125.
Tinto, V. (1987). The principles of effective retention. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 301 267).
*The phrase stepping out reflects the mode of college attendance among participants in this study characterized by leaving the arena of higher education for various reasons and lengths of times before returning to complete a degree. The term connotes individual choice, in contrast with individual failure brought to mind by other phrases such as dropping out, stopping out, and leaving. (Back to top)