By Louise Ann Lyon, PhD | August 22, 2017
Senior Research Associate, ETR
Imagine a high school student who loves technology. She’s decided to pursue a career in computer science (CS). What steps will take her forward from school to career?
Planning for these steps is an essential part of the educational process, both for individual students and for educational institutions. Unfortunately, the current ways most institutions are thinking about the CS pipeline—or even the more flexible model of pathways—aren’t workable for a lot of students. In fact, using these traditional metaphors does a disservice not only to students, but to our nation’s critical need to train STEM professionals.
In the “classic” pathway, a student enrolls in a four-year college, graduates with a degree after senior year and enters the workforce. But this only works for people who have the resources to apply and be accepted to, then pay for and attend, a university. That is not possible for a lot of women and underrepresented minorities who would like to pursue computer science.
Our nation needs more technology workers. And we need a more diverse technology workforce. Community colleges are a resource that could help us achieve these ends. They’re easier to access, less expensive and more diverse than four-year universities. Over half of community college students are people of color, and there is high minority participation in computer sciences. Students could complete two initial years in a more affordable community college setting, then transfer to a four- year institution.
So instead of the three-step pathway of (1) high school, (2) university, and (3) career; students would have a four-step pathway of (1) high school, (2) community college, (3) university, and (4) career. But here’s the big problem with this model: this isn’t the actual experience of most community college students pursuing CS degrees.
Our research shows that in fact most students who take the community college route are likely to follow a much more circuitous pathway. They need to take time off from their studies to earn money or help out their family financially. Or they need to work while pursuing their studies, which limits the time and effort they have for school, the number of classes they can take or the available schedule they have for classes. Or they need to start their college studies with remedial math classes, which puts them off sequence for all other courses. Or they drop and re-enroll in classes in an effort to bring up their GPA.
Creating and following a plan to transfer to a four-year institution is greatly complicated by the fact that different universities have different requirements for transfer admissions. Students often don’t have clear ideas about how best to prepare themselves. Many have received incorrect advising. They find themselves missing essential coursework, or unable to schedule a realistic sequence for the classes they do need, or stymied as they try to fit the necessary courses into the other demands of their lives.
This is abundantly clear in our schematic for the Traditional Model, the Expected Model, and the actual disruptions students report in the Experienced Model.
(Click here to see a larger version.)
The idea that students follow a standard “pipeline,” or even a focused “pathway,” is too simplistic. This creates a misalignment between the policies and practices set up by educational institutions that employ these metaphors, and the convoluted routes community college students typically take towards their degrees. In one recent study looking at a national dataset of 3,290 community college students, researchers identified over 1,200 distinct paths to a CS bachelor’s degree!
If we’re serious about expanding the so-called pipeline and diversifying the technology workforce, let’s work with metaphors that better represent the lived experiences of these students. We need to recognize and be more responsive to the twists and turns of the CC student pathways—a uniquely discovered path is more likely than a straight-ahead pipeline. We also need to work towards simplifying these pathways in ways that support less traditional, more diverse students.
Here are five practical steps we can take towards these goals.
We are not finished in this area of research. Group differences have genuine effects and we need to know more about them.
As we continue the effort to expand our technology workforce and improve diversity in the field, I believe attention to the role of community colleges will be critical. I hope to see continuing focus on CC students and faculty, along with new research-based interventions that improve the career success of diverse students.
Louise Ann Lyon, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR. She brings industry experience in the software engineering workplace together with a research background to her focus on diversifying technology at postsecondary institutions and in the workplace. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.