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STEM Intervention Programs: The Shift from Opportunity to Merit

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Association for the Study of Higher Education (2010)



This paper seeks to highlight the process of shifting missions and guiding ideologies of intervention programs designed for and targeted towards underrepresented, undergraduate students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields at large, public, research-intensive universities. This study draws upon qualitative data through semi-structured interviews conducted with 47 STEM intervention program directors and administrators. The findings reveal that with changes in the political economy of higher education, providing access and opportunities to historically marginalized populations has diminished in importance, while institutions’ return on investment and measured diversity has taken precedence in recent years. Programs that were originally created to provide and expand opportunities in the sciences are now rewarding merit and are accepting fewer students based on increasingly rigorous selection criteria. As a result, the number of students who participate in, and benefit from these intervention programs has declined alongside this ideological shift. We argue that students accepted to participate in such programs based on measures of merit are high-achieving students who are likely to succeed in the STEM fields without participation in intervention programs, while students who would likely benefit and may not succeed on their own are underserved. The priorities and commitment to diversity of institutions offering these programs that have undergone such changes are critiqued.