Choosing a College STEM Major: The Roles of Motivation, High School STEM Coursetaking, NAEP Mathematics Achievement, and Social Networks

This study develops a comprehensive conceptual framework to describe how high school STEM coursetaking, STEM GPA, and motivational beliefs on science and mathematics are related to students’ decisions about whether to choose a STEM major at 4-year college after taking into consideration student, family, and school background factors.


The findings from the Structural Equation Models (SEM) suggest that science identity had the strongest association with students’ choice of a STEM major among all other motivation variables, STEM coursetaking, and achievement variables. This is followed by mathematics identity and students’ educational expectations. Students’ high school STEM coursetaking and their corresponding achievement are also found to be significantly associated with the probability of students choosing a STEM major at college.

This paper is part of a series of AIR-NAEP working papers that showcase AIR’s expertise and experience not only with NAEP but with other large-scale assessments and survey-based longitudinal studies. Explore all the AIR-NAEP working papers.

The SEM results suggest that taking more credits in AP science, engineering, and overall STEM related courses along with at least 1 Physics credit is critical for choosing a STEM major in college. Students’ prior STEM achievement, including NAEP mathematics scores and GPA in STEM courses, were statistically significant indicators of students’ deciding to choose a STEM major in college.

To summarize, perhaps most importantly the current study shows the central role that motivation plays in who decides to major in a STEM field in a 4-year college. Of note is the role that identities play. Thinking and believing in oneself as a scientist and as a person who is good at mathematics were shown to be key in the choice of a STEM major.