Using embeddedness theory to understand and promote persistence in STEM majors.

Author:Morganson, Valerie J.
Position:Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - Report

Student retention in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors is a national concern. Research typically emphasizes attrition in STEM fields by examining factors driving students to switch career paths. This study used embeddedness theory to instead focus on factors that better anchor students within their majors. Focus groups were conducted with 21 junior and senior students majoring in STEM to contextualize the 3 tenets of embeddedness: fit, links, and sacrifice. Results supported embeddedness theory as a viable framework for understanding and promoting STEM student retention because fit, links, and sacrifice were all cited as factors that enriched the student experience. Gender differences suggested a heightened sense of pride for women as compared with men who pursue STEM degrees. Results inform ways to contextualize quantitative measures of STEM embeddedness. To facilitate retention, career counselors, instructors, and others may assist students to frame challenge as normal among persisting STEM upperclassmen.

Keywords: embeddedness, STEM, gender, college, retention


Student retention in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors represents a national concern. The 2012 report of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, 2012) strongly argues that the competitiveness of the United States in the global marketplace of the 21st century depends on a STEM-educated population prepared to contribute ideas and skills to the economy. The report also documents that we are currently falling far short of our goals for preparing the future workforce. For example, substantial evidence suggests that many American students arrive at the college level poorly prepared for STEM curricula (PCAST, 2010). However, poor preparation is not the only concern. A large percentage of qualified college students who begin their studies in STEM change to non-STEM majors before graduation (National Research Council, 2006). Especially concerning are the gender disparities; girls and women are disproportionately lost along the educational pathway and are underrepresented in STEM majors and careers (National Science Foundation, 2013). At the college level, research has considered a variety of factors to explain why students leave STEM and the associated gender differences in retention, including unwelcoming climates in STEM classrooms and departments (e.g., Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009), lack of STEM-relevant interests (e.g., Su, Rounds, & Armstrong, 2009), low self-efficacy (e.g., Marra, Rodgers, Shen, & Bogue, 2009), and the influence of contextual supports and barriers (Holland, Major, Morganson, & Orvis, 2011; Lent et al., 2001).

The present study approaches the problem from a different angle. Rather than focusing on why college students leave STEM, the present study aims to enhance our understanding of why students in STEM majors persist. In an effort to solve the STEM persistence problem, research to date has focused on testing the effectiveness of assorted intervention strategies, with some success (Graham, Frederick, Byars-Winston, Hunter, & Handels man, 2013). Examples of effective interventions include mentoring from faculty members and peers, participation in STEM learning communities, and engagement in research (Graham et ah, 2013; Wilson et ah, 2012). The evidence concerning what works with regard to improving STEM persistence is certainly important, but it is equally if not more important to understand why it works. The effectiveness of existing interventions and the development of new intervention strategies are likely to be enhanced to the extent that they are rooted in a strong theoretical framework. A useful theory would explain the underlying factors that contribute to persistence and why those factors matter psychologically.

In the present study, we explored the relevance of embeddedness theory to understanding persistence in STEM. Embeddedness theory has proven useful in explaining persistence in the workforce but has yet to be applied in educational contexts. This approach offers a comprehensive explanation of those factors that retain people in their jobs, employing organizations, and occupations (Feldman & Ng, 2007; Mitchell, Holtom, Lee, Sablynski, & Erez, 2001). The development of embeddedness theory was a response to critiques of turnover research in the organizational and career commitment literatures, which has tended to view remaining in one's job and profession as largely a function of positive affect (e.g., job satisfaction, organizational commitment) and a lack of alternate opportunities (Mitchell et al., 2001). Embeddedness theory acknowledges that such factors do not adequately account for all the variance in decisions to remain in one's job and occupation. Meta-analytic research findings show that job embeddedness accounts for incremental variance in voluntary turnover beyond job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and alternate job opportunities (Jiang, Liu, McKay, Lee, & Mitchell, 2012). Furthermore, the relationship between job embeddedness and turnover was stronger in female-dominated samples than in male-dominated samples (Jiang et al., 2012). Embeddedness also predicts additional outcomes beyond persistence, such as job performance, voluntary prosocial behaviors, and innovation (Lee, Mitchell, Sablynski, Burton, & Holtom, 2004; Ng & Feldman, 2010).

Embeddedness theory views a person as enmeshed in his or her current employment situation by a web of ties and connections that psychologically and practically hold him or her him in place (Lee, Burch, & Mitchell, 2014). In particular, embeddedness theory identifies three types of factors (i.e., fit, links, and sacrifice), which have been empirically validated (Lee et ah, 2014; Mitchell et ah, 2001). Fit is the extent to which an individual perceives that his or her abilities match requirements of the job, organization, or occupation and the extent to which associated rewards are viewed as desirable. Links refers to the extent to which an individual has ties to other people and activities in the job, organization, or occupation. Sacrifice captures the extent to which losses, including sunk costs, would be incurred by leaving one's job, organization, or occupation. These dimensions have been validated not only in the United States but also across cultures (Jiang et ah, 2012). Research suggests that although all dimensions are predictive of persistence, their relative importance may be context dependent (Jiang et ah, 2012; Ramesh & Gelfand, 2010). For example, Ramesh and Gelfand (2010) found that fit was a stronger predictor of turnover in their sample of U.S. workers, whereas links was the stronger predictor in a sample from India.

A key feature of embeddedness theory is its consideration of the broader community context (Mitchell et ah, 2001). That is, the theory recognizes that fit, links, and sacrifice associated with the broader geographic and social environment also influence job, organizational, or occupational persistence. For example, when a person is highly embedded in a particular community, then he or she may be less likely to accept a job offer from an organization outside the community, even if it is very attractive from an occupational perspective. When community embeddedness is high, staying in the community may take priority over remaining in one's occupation. A recent meta-analysis demonstrated that both job embeddedness and community embeddedness contribute uniquely to the prediction of voluntary turnover (Jiang et ah, 2012). The present study uses a qualitative approach to ascertain if and how the embeddedness theory concepts of fit, links, and sacrifice apply to students in STEM majors and in the broader university and community. Qualitative research is useful when the goal is to understand an issue from the perspective of participants in a given context (i.e., to use their stories and experiences to understand a phenomenon; Creswell, 2013). Thus, we conducted focus groups with university students majoring in STEM to determine ways in which the embeddedness constructs might apply in this context. Gathering first-hand examples of fit, links, and sacrifice from STEM students may offer a viable first step in ascertaining the relevance of embeddedness theory to STEM retention. The goal was to determine the extent to which these constructs resonate with and are deemed germane by members of the population of interest. In short, we aimed to discover what these constructs mean to STEM students.

We expected that when applied to the college context, embeddedness theory can be represented by both community embeddedness and major embeddedness. Community embeddedness may capture how students perceive their abilities matching the university or surrounding community (i.e., fit), the ties to other people or activities they have in the university or surrounding community (i.e., links), and the loss they would incur in leaving the university or surrounding community (i.e., sacrifice). Major embeddedness would reference the extent to which students perceive their abilities matching the demands of the major (i.e., fit), the ties to other people in their major (i.e., links), and the loss they would incur in leaving their major (i.e., sacrifice). By extending embeddedness constructs to the realm of STEM, the present study takes a step toward providing a framework for explaining why students may either stay in or leave their STEM field depending on their degree of association with their majors and/or communities.



We recruited participants from a large, public university with high research activity in the southeastern United States. At this university, approximately 17.0% of students declare STEM majors. This figure is lower than the national average of 28.0% of college undergraduate students declaring a STEM major (Chen &amp...

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