Home/About/Staff/Team/Universities/Links/Newsletter/What's New/Feedback/EHR/AAAS
News On 

Volume 2
Number 2
April 2000

In this issue:

Are Minority Graduates with Recently Acquired Science and Engineering Degrees Continuing their Education after Graduation?

My Vision of an AGEP Community

An Interview with Dr. Hector Flores

From Their Voices: American Indians In 
Higher Education And The Phenomenon Of Stepping Out

Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Retention Database

A Profile of an AGEP Institution: University of Florida

From the editors

Managing Editor:Yolanda S. George
Virginia Van Horne
Art Director:
Ann Williams

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 Indians In 
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
The National Science Foundation report, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1998, includes a multitude of statistics that verify the underrepresented status of American Indians, African Americans, and Hispanics in SEM fields in higher education and employment.  The small size, as well as identification issues, of the American Indian population (2.5 million or about .9% of the US population) raises serious questions about the reliability and validity of statistics collected and reported to determine characteristics of this population.  Inconsistencies of statistical measurement by institutions of higher education complicate the picture.  The lack of uniformity in reporting statistics was repeatedly noted at Workshop 2000:  A National Dialogue to Increase Minority Participation in SEM, a joint conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the EMERGE Alliance, chaired by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the National Science Foundation held in February, 2000 in Atlanta, GA.  Colleges, universities, government agencies, and funding entities generally measure persistence and graduation rates by four-, five-, or six-year cohorts.  Research about American Indians in higher education revealed other cohort measures that included persistence cohorts and transfer cohorts. 

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 Process
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

"During my years at the university I saw that many Indian students would be enrolled for a while and then leave.  Maybe after they got more money or took classes at a community college they would come back and then maybe for other reasons they would leave again.  That’s basically what I did, sort of step into and out of college more than once." 
The phenomenon of stepping out is evident in the words of this American Indian male who took 12 years to earn a baccalaureate degree in electrical engineering after attending four different institutions of higher education, including a stint at a community college.  Given the lack of uniformity in reporting retention rates, it is difficult to know how this graduate was counted along his path towards earning a bachelor’s degree.

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. 

  • The outcome is framed in terms of successful completion of a degree. 
  • The dynamic nature of moving into, out of and back into higher education is evident. 
  • The model suggests the notion of progressive discovery as a way to identify, explain, predict, and support this college-going pattern. 
Each stepping stone is identified with positive factors that kept students in school or brought them back into higher education, and with negative factors that served to pull them out and kept them disengaged from higher education. 

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. 

"It seems like every time I went back to school I was clearer about what I wanted to do.  It was hard though, because every time I went back my life was more complicated with a bigger family and more debt and less money.  But I always felt like I knew myself better.  Finally I got a good hold of what I wanted to do so I just went for it."
Progressive discovery also suggests that change occurs in the institutions during the stepping-out time as highlighted by these words from a director of American Indian support services. 
"Institutional change is slow and ponderous, no doubt about that.  But there has been more attention given to the minority advocacy offices here recently. For returning Indian students there is a broader array of services available than even two or three years ago.  Like our tutoring program is better than even just last semester because of a new grant which has allowed us to hire more tutors, especially in math, chemistry, and physics."

Giving Voice to the Phenomenon of Stepping Out

Among 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.
"I know where I come from.  I know my background.  Nobody needs to remind me.  I brought my cultural heritage to school with me.  I figured out that I can’t really lose what is back home.   This knowledge kept me grounded in my aspirations to finish school."
Conversely, the words of this step-out indicate that having weak cultural identity played a role in her decision to step away from higher education.
"My parents grew up in a time when they were brain-washed, you know.  They were the people who were sent away to schools where they were punished for talking their language and practicing their traditions.  I guess they wanted to protect me and my sisters so we never learned any traditional stuff.  Now me and my kids have moved back home to learn the Indian way.  I figure I can put my education on hold while my kids grow up."
An administrator who worked closely with American Indian students at a large university related the importance of cultural identity to persistence in four-year SEM programs.
 "Students have to learn to live in two worlds.  They need to remember they are part of a community where cooperation, family, and generosity are highly valued but when they get to the university they have to conform to the predominate culture and be competitive and become somewhat self-centered, particularly in science classes, it seems to me.  For an Indian who is just learning abut their traditional heritage and becoming identified with their tribal heritage, it’s hard to find their way in two worlds."
Family support was a pervasive force in persistence towards achieving a baccalaureate degree and emerged as an element in the phenomenon of stepping out.  The lack of family support proved to be a barrier for the step-out who said: 
"There was a real lack of support from my parents.  I guess it was because nobody in my family went to college, so nobody knew what college life was like.  They didn’t have an appreciation for how it was to live in a dormitory and go to class where you are the only Indian.  I couldn’t count on them too much to help me."
Academic preparation was seen as a major factor in the longevity of American Indians in SEM majors at four-year institutions.  An administrator explained an often-seen situation.
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.

"I was fortunate to attend a five-week summer engineering program after my senior year in high school.  I was able to become familiar with the campus and talk with faculty and counselors.  Their attitude was that they would help me do whatever I needed to succeed.  They helped me understand that there would be a social as well as an academic adjustment when I began college in the fall."
Financial resources emerged as one of the most critical factors associated with maintaining continued enrollment in SEM majors.  This biological science graduate related a typical scenario.
"To begin with I had an academic scholarship from the tribe which lasted for a year.  Plus I got some other tribal funding to make up the difference for my tuition. I was able to get this money for four years but then when I had to stretch my time in school past four years I had to depend on a Pell grant and I worked part-time.  Finally, I had to resort to getting a student loan."
The administration of financial aid was a problem for the step-out who said these words, which were echoed by a number of other participants.
"Money has always been a problem for me and my family.  We just don’t have much, so even though I got a tribal scholarship it wasn’t enough to pay for my first year in college.  It was less than some other Indians got from their tribes.  Plus the money from the tribe came late to the school and I kept getting bills with larger and larger late charges and finally I just couldn’t pay them and I couldn’t see how I would have money for the next semester, so I left."
Motivation derived from a number of sources emerged as a powerful influence on the path of American Indians in SEM majors.  Many participants suggested words similar to this chemical engineering graduate.
  • "To me, being motivated is about knowing what you want to do and having clear goals, then you can see progress."
  • "Despite a strong sense of personal motivation, this step-out faced numerous obstacles to earning a degree in mathematics."
  • "Kids in the valley where I grew up never gave much thought to making life different for themselves after high school.  I am determined not to become another statistic, which is what I am right now, because I haven’t been able to pull together the necessary money to stay in school.   It’s hard being a single mom without access to good day care for my kids." 
 Academic performance appeared to be closely aligned with academic preparation, particularly in mathematics.  An undergraduate mathematics professor who had created an effective tutoring program summarized the connection with these words:
"It’s pretty tough for some of these kids who got high grades in their high schools in math classes to come into college algebra or calculus and discover that college algebra is much different and harder than high school algebra.  Students who don’t get help right away often end up flunking basic math classes.  Then they have to take lower level math in order to get up to speed.  In the meantime, it may happen that they don’t do well in other courses due to taking too many hours, poor study habits, partying too much or a host of other things.  Often this results  in academic probation and maybe academic suspension until they can improve grades in basic mathematics classes."
Alcohol and or/or drug use intermingles with other stepping stones to complicate the progress American Indians make towards baccalaureate SEM degrees.  The words of a step-out were reflected in other similar stories.
"Both my folks were alcoholic.  I watched my father die, and my sister died in a car wreck that was related to alcohol.  They say my brother committed suicide when he was on drugs.  It takes lots of effort to stay away from the stuff, but that is what I am determined to do, not only for myself, but for my kids too.  And for right now I can’t stay in school."
The stepping-stone of institutional interface revealed a wide range of programs to support American Indians in SEM majors.  Words of praise for the innovative and helpful work of faculty and administrators were plentiful as step-outs and graduates related their experiences in colleges and universities.  There were also voices and stories from all participants that were accurate illustrations of “official encouragement and institutional discouragement,” a phrase coined by William Tierney (1992).  Without realizing it, the civil engineering graduate whose words follow was explaining this phrase.  Regrettably little had been offered to him at the university as he sought to gain balance in two worlds.  It was during a time of stepping out that he became more grounded in his culture which resulted in clarified goals and sharpened motivation.
"I’ve seen students looking for acceptance in the fast-paced world of the university where acceptance is gauged heavily, it seems to me, on processes and disciplines full of facts and statistics.  I know for myself that without a firm footing in my own culture, which I learned while I was out of school, the college experience can take you out of your realm, so to speak.  Your life goes on a different path and renders you a stranger in a different way."
Analysis of the data revealed that no single participant spoke of all eight stepping stones.  Indeed, it became clear that the interplay of cultural identity, financial resources, family support, and motivation proved fundamental for successful completion of SEM bachelor’s degrees.  The voices of graduates, faculty and administrators reflect that academic preparation, academic performance, drug and alcohol use, and institutional interface were less important stepping stones, provided that some combination of the first four were on a solid foundation.

Recommendations for Colleges, Universities, and Funding Agencies

General recommendations: 
  • Re-design policies and procedures to reflect the phenomenon of stepping out as the common mode of college attendance reflected by participants in the study;;
  • Seek congruence of institutional actions with stated missions, goals, and objectives regarding recruitment and retention of diverse student populations.  As more than one participant said, “Schools need to walk their talk.”
Recommendations to accommodate the phenomenon of stepping out: 
  • Examine and clarify communication between academic offices and student affairs offices to avoid one segment blaming the other for high attrition rates.  There must be balanced input from these offices relative to responsibilities for retention efforts.
  • Develop and practice a consistent definition of retention and attrition.  Statistical reporting within and across institutions of higher education and funding agencies must be uniform and must consider the reality of the phenomenon of stepping out as it relates to college attendance by American Indians and other minority populations.

Recommendations to mitigate the adverse consequences of the phenomenon of stepping out: 

  • Create financial aid policies that assure a level of financial aid upon a student’s return to school that corresponds to the amount with which a step-out began higher education. 
  • Develop and implement contractual agreements between students and schools regarding level of financial aid and conditions of stepping out and returning to school.  Partnerships between individuals and institutions can be created to honor the spirit and intent of pursuing a four-year degree.
Recommendations to maximize the positive effects of stepping out: 
  • Promote and support institutional contact with students who have stepped out.  Student services should be funded to include periodic structured contact with students to assure, hasten, and nurture their return to school.
  • Create and maintain collaborative relationships among institutions to increase graduation rates of American Indians and other minority students, recognizing that successful completion of a bachelor’s degree is a shared goal among educational and funding organizations.

Implications of the Phenomenon of Stepping Out

This 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.
I wish to thank Shirley Powell, Ph.D. for reviewing this paper.


Bean, J.P. (1982). Conceptual models of student attrition: How theory can help the institutional researcher. In E. Pascarella (Ed.), New directions for institutional research: Studying student attrition (pp. 17-33), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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)

  1. In this article American Indian also includes Alaskan Native.
  2. This research was funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Home/About/Staff/Team/Universities/Links/Newsletter/What's New/Feedback/EHR/AAAS