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Racial and Ethnic Heterogeneity in the Effect of MESA on AP STEM Coursework and College STEM Major Aspirations

Abstract

Previous research suggests that racial and ethnic disparities in postsecondary STEM outcomes are rooted much earlier in the educational pipeline. One possible remedy to these disparities is participation in early STEM enrichment programs. We examine the impact of MESA, which is an early program that targets socioeconomically disadvantaged students, on outcomes that may lead students down the path to STEM. We analyze three waves of restricted nationally-representative data from the High School Longitudinal Study that trace the STEM progress of more than 25,000 students throughout high school and into their postsecondary careers. Propensity score matching models reveal that MESA participation increases students’ odds of taking AP STEM courses in high school and their aspirations for declaring a STEM major in college. However, these effects are driven primarily by black and white students, respectively. Latino and Asian students remain largely unaffected. A formal sensitivity analysis concludes that these findings are moderately robust to unobserved confounding. The results are also robust to alternative matching schemes. Collectively, the findings suggest that MESA may improve black students’ high school STEM engagement but may have little impact on black and Latino students’ STEM outcomes in college.

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Notes

  1. Although the outcomes under study here are likely to invoke an image of a college-ready student, these analyses are not systematically conditioned on college-readiness or any other indicator that would limit the analysis only to students who are going to enroll (or are enrolled) in postsecondary institutions. We assess the impact of MESA on STEM outcomes for all students.

  2. The MESA program originated in California in 1970 and has since expanded to ten states that have integrated it into their set of services for disadvantaged students. The program operates in 140 elementary schools, 470 middle schools, 359 high schools, 37 two-year institutions, and 28 four-year institutions. These MESA participation statistics are current as of 2015 and, therefore, may not necessarily represent participation at the time when HSLS respondents participated in MESA.

  3. The counterfactual group could include students who participated in other SEPs. Given MESA’s explicit focus on STEM, however, we distinguish it among all of the other possible SEPs because of the program’s specialized attention on getting underrepresented students into the STEM college pipeline.

  4. Pro-science climate includes whether the school has any of the following features: special focus on math or science, holds math or science fairs/workshops/competitions, offers pre-high school summer reading/math instruction for struggling 9th graders, sponsors a math or science after school program, pairs students with mentors in math or science, brings in guest speakers to talk about math or science, takes students on math- or science-relevant field trips, tells students about math/science contests/websites/blogs/other programs, requires teacher professional development in how students learn math/science, requires teacher professional development in increasing interest in math/science, raises student math/science interest/achievement in another way, offers College Board AP courses on-site, offers incentives to attract full-time high school math or science teachers, and on-site AP offerings for Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Computer Science, Computer Science A, Computer Science B, Advanced Biology, Advanced Chemistry, or Advanced Physics.

  5. In order to control for heterogeneity in selection into the treatment and outcome that lies between schools, we included school-level variables in the matching model. This adjustment allows us to partially account for the clustered nature of the data and accurately specify the propensity score model (Arpino and Mealli 2008).

  6. According to the Stata help file for the command pstest, “The standardized percent bias is the percent difference of the sample means in the treated and non-treated (full or matched) sub-samples as a percentage of the square root of the average of the sample variances in the treated and non-treated groups (formula from Rosenbaum and Rubin 1985).”.

  7. We would like to note that findings for Southeast Asian American students may differ—especially given likely differences in family socioeconomic status. However, we cannot pinpoint any such differences since we did not disaggregate the data sufficiently in this regard.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank their undergraduate research assistant, Summer Lopez Colorado, for her work on developing this paper, Dr. Anna R. Haskins and Clara M. Elpi for their careful reviews of the manuscript, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. In addition, the authors thank seminar participants at the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Steven Elías Alvarado.

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Alvarado, S.E., Muniz, P. Racial and Ethnic Heterogeneity in the Effect of MESA on AP STEM Coursework and College STEM Major Aspirations. Res High Educ 59, 933–957 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-018-9493-3

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Keywords

  • STEM
  • AP coursework
  • STEM aspirations/expectations
  • Propensity score matching