Behavioral Health, Mental Health, Substance Abuse
Majoring and persisting in STEM during college: Examining the influence of substance use
(School of Public Health (UMD) BCH Faculty)
Background: Considerable emphasis has been placed on promoting recruitment and retention in college science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs in the US. It is likely that many factors influence STEM major declaration and persistence. Alcohol and other drug (AOD) use has not been studied as a possible influential factor despite research showing that it can negatively affect academic performance. Using data from a longitudinal cohort study of 1,253 students, this study evaluated the association between high school AOD use and declaring a STEM major, and the association between college AOD use patterns and graduating with a STEM degree. Methods: Prior to college, participants reported on high school AOD use. Annually thereafter, AOD use was measured via personal interviews. Variables were created to reflect longitudinal patterns of AOD use during college. Majors and graduation status were collected from administrative data from the home institution and by self-report if the student transferred. Participants were coded as majoring in STEM or non-STEM based on the major(s) they declared during their first two years of college, and coded as graduating in STEM if they earned a Bachelor’s degree in STEM. Results: Approximately one-quarter (28%) declared a STEM major. Alcohol use frequency during high school was negatively associated with declaring a STEM major in college. Two-thirds (67%) of STEM majors completed a STEM-related Bachelor’s degree. None of the AOD variables were associated with persistence in a STEM major. However, high school alcohol frequency predicted college alcohol use. Significance: These results underscore early alcohol use as a negative influence on selecting STEM as a college major. Substance use prevention might be a valuable tool for promoting interest in college STEM programs. More research is needed to understand how substance use and other factors influence the decision to major in a STEM field.