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Elvira Abrica, assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education, is examining institutional factors within community colleges that affect students from underrepresented and underserved populations who wish to transfer to four-year institutions in STEM fields.

Study examines STEM pathways in the community college

Elvira Abrica, assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education, is examining institutional factors within community colleges that affect students from underrepresented and underserved populations who wish to transfer to four-year institutions in STEM fields.
Elvira Abrica, assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education, is examining institutional factors within community colleges that affect students from underrepresented and underserved populations who wish to transfer to four-year institutions in STEM fields.

As demand increases for a growing workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, the nation’s colleges and universities strive to recruit and retain students from diverse backgrounds.

Open-access institutions, including community colleges, enroll the majority of U.S. college students and play a crucial role in increasing the number of graduates with STEM degrees.

Elvira Abrica, assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education, is examining institutional factors within community colleges that affect students’ ability to successfully transfer to four-year institutions in STEM fields. She is also analyzing institutional factors at four-year schools that shape STEM bachelor’s degree completion among students who began at community colleges.

Funded by a Layman Award from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Office of Research and Economic Development, Abrica’s research explores community college characteristics that may promote successful STEM transfer for racially minoritized student populations. Her work focuses on higher education access and opportunity for underrepresented and underserved populations.

“If we’re interested in increasing the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees to maintain our global economic standing, it’s important to look at community colleges,” she said.

To help identify which factors shape STEM transfer, Abrica is examining national, longitudinal data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which provides information about college student outcomes and higher education institutions.

If we’re interested in increasing the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees to maintain our global economic standing, it’s important to look at community colleges.”

Elvira Abrica, assistant professor of educational leadership and higher education

She has enlisted help from Natalie Koziol, CYFS research assistant professor, and Deryl Hatch-Tocaimaza, assistant professor of educational administration, along with several graduate and undergraduate research assistants.

Preliminary findings show that while student ability, motivation and institutional contexts contribute to student success, math proficiency is the key.

“Math is what everything else hinges on,” Abrica said. “Prior research shows that being successful in STEM as a transfer student comes from being able to get past low-level math courses.”

Abrica is examining students’ college transcript data to better understand math-taking patterns and their relationships to institutional factors. She hopes to combine those factors and patterns to explore STEM success by specific fields — engineering, math and physics — and by student ethnic populations.

Students of color are disproportionately enrolled in low-level math courses, creating further limits to STEM access, Abrica said. Higher education cannot function effectively, she said, if large economic and racial gaps persist within student populations.

“You can’t have post-secondary institutions completely comprised of student bodies that don’t reflect the surrounding demographic context,” she said. “It’s just common sense that the scales cannot be tipped so heavily.”

To expand her research, Abrica plans to pursue federal funding to more closely examine individual and institutional factors that shape community college-level STEM success.

“Ensuring the nation’s economic prosperity and meeting the needs of our technologically driven economy depends on embracing the nation’s diverse demographics and meaningful inclusion in STEM,” Abrica said.