Students shouldn't let common myths and misconceptions prevent them from majoring in STEM subjects in community college.
Careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields are lucrative and growing. But more than two-thirds of community college students who declare a STEM major don’t complete that degree, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
There are a wide range of fields that fall under the STEM umbrella. Community college can be a starting point for students who pursue STEM careers that require advanced degrees or an avenue for students to earn an associate degree and other certifications.
"Community college is a good first stop because of the price, for one thing, and I feel it gives you a really good quality education," says Andrew Constantine, a 19 year-old freshman at Southern Maine Community College.
Money issues, insufficient math and science skills and unfamiliarity with STEM careers and the college process are some of the reasons students don't stick with STEM, according to a report produced last year by Hanover Research, a global marketing firm.&
But teens who are interested in tapping into the benefits of community college and a STEM career can set themselves up for success by taking the following steps.
1. Build math skills: Students don’t have to love math or technology to get a degree in STEM. Advanced math courses, such as calculus, aren’t needed for every STEM degree or certification, but strong math skills will serve as an advantage to any student.
"By focusing more on the opportunities that exist within high school course work especially within math, they’re setting themselves up to be more successful once they make it into postsecondary education," says Sid Phillips, chief development officer at Hanover Research.
Teens who excel in high school math can reduce the number of remedial courses that they'll have to take in community college. That will save students time and money, experts say.
Constantine has to take two levels of remedial math, but he's still pursuing an associate degree in computer technology.
"I am the last guy you want to solve math problems, but I study it and I give it my all and I guess that must be working for my GPA," says Constantine, who has a 4.0 grade-point average.
2. Find a mentor: Constantine was inspired to start at a community college and work his way up – and save money along the way – by his cousin-in-law who works in IT.
"I’m kind of following in his footsteps," he says. "He landed a job in a help desk environment and went back to school and got his bachelor's degree and eventually his master's, and that's what I plan to do as well."
Mentors are an essential and invaluable element to helping STEM students succeed in community college and their careers, and students should make finding one a priority, experts say. Professionals who know the ins and outs of careers can provide an in-depth look at the workforce and eliminate some of the stereotypes that prevent students from majoring and staying in STEM, experts say.
Women and minorities – who are underrepresented in STEM fields – and teens who aren’t exposed to STEM professionals in their day-to-day life can benefit from having a mentor with a similar background.
"I think it’s important for impressionable youth to have somebody who has come from a background similar to theirs, to see them be successful in this role, to break down some of the barriers and some of the misconceptions that I think exist with higher education STEM programs and ultimately the profession that these graduates move into," Hanover's Phillips says.
[Read more about how women and minorities can find colleges that offer STEM support.]
Families who don’t know people in relevant career fields can reach out to high school counselors, alumni networks, neighbors and community organizations to find connections.
3. Take advantage of STEM resources: Many community colleges are working to attract and keep STEM applicants, experts say. Prospective students should look for STEM scholarships and take advantage of any social and academic STEM-related programs that can help them build exposure to STEM fields before they graduate.
Do a Google search for local opportunities, paid internships and after school programs, and check to see if your local community college or university offers any STEM programs for teens. Teens can also use online forums and free online learning sites to build skills outside of class, says Charles Eaton, CEO of the Creating IT Futures Foundation, which provides training opportunities for groups underrepresented in STEM.
Students typically need strong social and academic support once they start community college, experts say. Students should take advantage of career and internship assistance programs offered by schools and any other programs, such as child care, that will help them succeed.