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First-Year STEM Students: Racial Gaps & Overestimation

December 7, 2022

Do first-year college students studying STEM overestimate their performance in introductory STEM courses and does this phenomenon differ by race? To what extent can overestimation be explained by individual and contextual factors? According to new research published in The Journal of Higher Education, “When Expectation Isn’t Reality: Racial Disparities in Overestimation and STEM Attrition Among First-Year Students in College,” the gap in expected and actual grades in introductory STEM courses is prevalent among all first-year STEM students but is notably larger among racially minoritized students. Analyses indicate that this gap is largely attributable to prior achievement and high school attended. The gap in expected and actual performance during the first-year of college has far-reaching consequences as students who overestimate are more likely to leave STEM fields. Westat’s Elizabeth Park, PhD, is the lead author of this research.

Elizabeth Park

Researchers used unique survey and administrative data of STEM students at a large, public university. To measure overestimation, a team of researchers surveyed first-year undergraduates at the beginning and the end of the term, and asked them to predict the grade they will receive in the course. The outcome measures assessed were STEM interest and degree attainment.

“Our study points to the need for proactive outreach among high school advisors and teachers to better portray college-going opportunities and expectations. Colleges can share in the responsibility of helping students develop accurate expectations of success by offering various programming before official coursework,” says Park.


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