Preparation for college-level STEM courses

Currently in Minnesota and nationwide there is a lack of alignment between K-12 standards, curricula, and assessments and college-readiness expectations of postsecondary institutions.  Many high school graduates who apply and are admitted to college are not adequately prepared to do college-level coursework. ACT scores show this lack of preparedness.

As a result, many students need remedial coursework when they enroll in college. In 2011, 40 percent of Minnesota high school graduates enrolled in Minnesota public colleges and universities needed to take one or more remedial courses. This included 54 percent of Minnesota students who attended two-year colleges or universities. Of students needing remedial coursework, 81 percent took remedial courses in math (1).

Although many Minnesota high school graduates are unprepared or underprepared for college coursework, many Minnesota high schools offer rigorous courses that can prepare students for success in college courses, including STEM courses, and the opportunity to take college courses while in high school. These advanced study courses can excite students about STEM and challenge them academically, as well as prepare them for college STEM courses. However, the availability of these courses varies across the high schools in Minnesota.

The most widely recognized advanced study courses offered in high school are Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses:

AP is the predominant national program for advanced courses in high schools nationally, with more than 10 courses available in math and science. The College Board provides outlines for AP courses, although teachers have considerable leeway in implementation. Elective, end-of-course exams are designed to be comparable to introductory college-level course exams.

The IB program was developed to provide an international standard of secondary education for children of diplomats and others stationed outside their own countries. High schools that offer IB must offer the full Diploma Programme, which includes 6-7 courses over two years, including STEM courses. However, students can take individual courses without taking all the courses required for the diploma.

Other alternatives for advanced study in high school are:

Dual enrollment. Dual enrollment provides students with the opportunity to take college courses while still in high school and gain both college and high school credit for them. Dual enrollment has become an increasingly popular model of instruction for career and technical education (CTE) programs. Minnesota offers a dual enrollment program called Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) that is not confined to CTE programs but also includes enrollment in many four-year colleges and universities.

In Minnesota, AP and IB courses, and PSEO, have lower rates of participation among low-income students, and African American, American Indian, and Hispanic students.

Early College high schools. These are small schools that aim to directly connect all students with a college experience and allow them to simultaneously earn high school and college credit in a supportive environment. They offer students the chance to earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree or 1-2 years of transferrable college credits through partnerships with colleges and universities. Although rare in Minnesota, one example of this model in the state is Irondale High School in the Mounds View school district.

Another program with evidence of success in preparing high school students for college-level STEM courses is:

Upward Bound Math-Science. An initiative within the federal Upward Bound program that provides grants, usually to two- and four-year colleges and universities to develop college preparatory programs focused on math and science careers. The program offers summer and afterschool academic enrichment opportunities to high school students and some assistance with the college transition process. Besides better preparing students for college coursework, programs such as this one can stimulate greater interest in STEM careers.

A National Research Council report recommends the following practices for advanced study programs in high school:

Career and Technical Education

Research on a couple of initiatives in high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) show promise for strengthening students' STEM achievement and improving their preparation for postsecondary education and careers. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) offers a series of engineering courses organized around "authentic, problem-centered projects that require students to apply mathematics, science, and technical knowledge and skills;" a sequence of math and science courses; training for those teaching PLTW courses; and an end-of-course exam to determine whether students meet course objectives and performance expectations. Results of a quasi-experimental study indicated that PLTW students had higher achievement in math and science than other CTE students in comparable fields, and were more likely to complete a college preparatory curriculum than these other students (3).

Many high school students taking CTE courses do not have the math skills to be ready for college or high-skill workplaces. A second initiative, the Math-in-CTE model, is designed to strengthen students' math skills by building more explicit, contextual math instruction into CTE curricula in high school. The model involves training math and CTE teachers to work together to make math more explicit in the CTE curricula. Results of a one-year experimental study found that the program increased students' math performance on traditional and college-placement tests (based on a comparison to control students) without detracting from students' knowledge in their occupational areas (4).

Retention and completion of STEM college degrees

Only 43 percent of students who enter as a STEM major in four-year U.S. public colleges and universities end up graduating with a STEM major. At U.S. community colleges, only 14 percent of students who declare a STEM major at entry remain in a STEM field at the end of their enrollment. Currently, 19 percent of bachelor's degrees in the U.S. are awarded in STEM fields compared to 50 percent of first degrees in China (5). While women and minority groups now constitute about 70 percent of U.S. college students, they represent only about 45 percent of the students receiving undergraduate degrees in STEM (6).

Research indicates that student retention or persistence in undergraduate STEM majors is associated primarily with the following three aspects of their experience:

Under-preparation for college (e.g., lack of college-ready math skills or study skills) can also be an important factor in retention. Bridge programs from high school to college can help underprepared students. Best practices for these programs include:

Other practices that can improve retention in STEM fields in college include the following:

The practices just described are important for retention of all students pursuing undergraduate majors in STEM fields, but may be especially important for students in underrepresented groups (students of color, women). A couple of reports focusing on college students of color pursuing STEM majors emphasize many of the practices just described as well as some others. These include: forming meaningful relationships with faculty, mentoring, effective academic advising, tutoring, opportunities to engage in hands-on research, participation in student study groups, peer support, and financial support (5).


1. Mueller, D., & Gozali-Lee, E. (2013). College and career readiness: A review and analysis conducted for Generation Next. Saint Paul, MN: Wilder Research.

2. National Research Council. (2002). Learning and understanding: Improving advanced study of mathematics and science in U.S. high schools. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website:

3. Bottoms, G., & Uhn, J. (2007). Project Lead the Way works: A new type of career and technical program.  Retrieved from Southern Regional Educational Board website:

4. Stone, J. R., III, Alfeld, C., & Pearson, D. (2008). Rigor and relevance: Testing a model of enhanced math learning in career and technical education. American Education Research Journal, 45, 767-795.

5. Committee on STEM Education, National Science and Technology Council. (2013). Federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, 5-year strategic plan.  Retrieved from:

6. Executive Office of the President, President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Retrieved from:

Additional Sources

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, & Institute of Medicine. (2011).
Expanding underrepresented minority participation: America's science and technology talent at the crossroads. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website:

Toldson, I. A., & Esters, L. L. (2012). The quest for excellence: Supporting the academic success of minority males in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Retrieved from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities website: