Date of Award

Spring 3-13-2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

PhD Higher Education Leadership, Management, Policy


Education Leadership, Management and Policy


Eunyoung Kim, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Robert Kelchen, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Rong Chen, Ph.D.


Persistence and Degree Completion in STEM, Non-Cognitive, Self-Efficacy, Outcome Expectations, Interest


The lack of students’ persistence (or student’s effort to continue their academic studies until degree completion) in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and the attrition of STEM students as well as the shortage of STEM workers have gathered much attention from policy makers, governmental agencies, higher education researchers and administrators in recent years. As a result, much research efforts have been directed towards identifying factors causing the leaks in the STEM pipeline and finding effectively antidotes to patch the leakage points along the pipe. In the past, most studies in the STEM disciplines have focused on individual cognitive capacities (or academic predictors) such as precollege performance indicators (e.g., high school GPA) and standardized achievement test scores (e.g., SAT and ACT) to explain the leading factors contributing to the high attrition rate among STEM college students. Yet these studies just address mainly one aspect of the key reasons why students failed to persist. We still lack evidence, both empirically and theoretically, on how “non-cognitive skills”—which are essential individual characteristics vital for success in any schooling, work, and other life-time outcomes— may influence STEM major persistence. Absent from most of the scholarly discussions are the many ways in which psychosocial factors (such as grit, tenacity, optimism, self-efficacy, perseverance, motivation, self-discipline, teamwork, reliability) influence the decision-making processes of students’ persistence. Rather than focusing on the traditional cognitive ability and academic achievement measures of academic preparation this study focused on psychosocial factors that influence the decision-making processes of students’ persistence and degree completion.

The purpose of the study is to examine the extent to which non-cognitive factors (i.e., self-efficacy, outcome expectation, and interest) contribute to undergraduate students’ persistence and college degree completion in STEM with particular attention to students enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities in the United States. The analytical sample for this study was drawn from the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS:2002-2012) dataset with the final sample used for analysis representing the 2002 cohort of 10th graders who declared STEM major in college by 2006 and participated in the final wave of ELS in 2012. As such, the result was reflective of this group of students, and not all STEM students in college in general. Result of the study revealed three general findings about the three noncognitive factors. First, students with strong interest in pursuing a STEM major, a high sense of self-efficacy, and a mid to high level of outcome expectations are more likely to persist and complete their college degree in their declared major in STEM field. Students who reported that they had no interest in pursuing a STEM major yet declared a STEM major in their postsecondary education, and who have moderate to high self-efficacy and high outcome expectations are more likely to switch to a non-STEM major and persist to complete a degree in a non-STEM field. Thirdly, irrespective of whether the student was interested in pursuing STEM, a student with low self-efficacy and low outcome expectations was more likely to not attain any degree or credential.