Why so few eager students will earn a STEM degree

Many high school students intend to major in a STEM field in college, but most of them won't be able to handle the rigorous courses they'll need to earn a degree in science, technology, engineering and math.

That's the conclusion of a new report by ACT, the testing giant. The organization's study suggests that only 26 percent of high school seniors who expressed an interest in STEM fields are academically ready for tough first-year STEM classes in college.

The findings represent troubling news for the legions of high school students who hope to pursue one of these challenging majors. According to ACT, 49 percent of the 1.9 million graduating high school seniors who took the ACT exam in 2015 expressed an interest in majoring in a STEM field. ACT documented that this keen interest in STEM majors and related careers has remained at this high level for several years.

Teenage interest in STEM fields isn't surprising, considering the tremendous focus on the type of salaries these college grads can earn. Lists of the nation's top-paying jobs are dominated by occupations requiring STEM degrees.

Many students focused on STEM careers, however, appear to be setting themselves up for failure because they don't possess strong backgrounds in science and math before heading to college.

According to the ACT report, certain categories of students fared better than others who are interested in STEM fields. Thirty-one percent of male students, for instance, met the STEM benchmarks versus 21 percent for female students.

When broken down by race and ethnicity, ACT found Asians performed the best among graduating high school seniors who expressed an interest in STEM majors. Here are the percentages of these students who met the STEM readiness benchmark:

  • African Americans: 5 percent
  • American Indians: 8 percent
  • Asians: 49 percent
  • Hispanic: 13 percent
  • Pacific Islander: 17 percent
  • White: 32 percent
  • Two or more races: 25 percent

Among high school students hoping to pursue a STEM degree, medical and health degrees were cited the most often. Here's the breakdown of interest in specific STEM fields:

  • Medical and health: 42 percent
  • Engineering and technology: 25 percent
  • Science: 22 percent
  • Computer science and mathematics: 11 percent

Meeting the STEM benchmark is important because ACT research has concluded that students meeting or exceeding the benchmark have a 49 percent chance of attaining a STEM degree in six years compared to only 17 percent for those who fall below this benchmark.

Students who meet or surpass the STEM benchmark have a 75 percent probability of earning a grade of C or higher in first-year college STEM courses such as calculus, biology, chemistry and physics. They're also more likely to earn good grades, persist in a college STEM major and earn a STEM-related bachelor's degree than those who didn't meet the benchmark.

While many high schools students want to major in STEM subjects, the number who said they would like to eventually teach math and science is shockingly low. Less than 1 percent of 2015 high school graduates who took the ACT test said they would like to become math or science teachers.

As the ACT report noted, this is a troubling finding because well-prepared teachers are critical to boosting the percentage of students who are ready to tackle subjects like calculus, physics and chemistry in college.