Mitchell Chang: Study Featured in Recent Bestseller by Malcolm Gladwell

HEOC professor says that the "sink-or-swim" environment of pre-med courses is detrimental to growing a STEM workforce in the U.S.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants” (Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 2013) the author discusses a dilemma that faces students in choosing between a well-known university and one that might not be as prestigious or competitive. Citing research by Professor Mitchell Chang of UCLA Ed and IS, Gladwell notes that sometimes being a big fish in a small pond might propel a student toward a brighter future.

Chang, who teaches in the Higher Education and Organizational Change Division of UCLA Ed, conducted a study on the first-year persistence rates of students in biomedical and behavioral science majors.  This study was part of a larger project on science education funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was conducted principally with UCLA professors Sylvia Hurtado and Kevin Eagan. He says that the “sink-or-swim” environment that pervades at top institutions is detrimental to the ability of the United States to offset the shortage of a home-grown crop of STEM professionals.

At elite research universities, compared to the less selective institutions, a larger proportion of [students] are interested in attending medical school,” says Chang of his findings. “It turns out that a significant portion of science faculty in a lot of these research universities are really skeptical about the interest of those pre-med students.  These faculty members think that these students are not really interested in science, but rather in entering a high status profession with high financial compensation. Faculty often want to weed out those students rather than provide support to get them through the early and rougher years of undergraduate studies. This intensifies competition and contributes to that ‘sink and swim’ culture for biological science majors, which is prevalent at highly selective undergraduate institutions.

Whether students stick with science or not, having studied that knowledge base helps them in ways that enrich our communities,” Chang asserts. “If we’re weeding these students out, especially those at highly selective institutions that admit a larger share of the science talent out of high school, we’re never going to be able to fulfill the science needs of our society. We’ll always be in a position of having to import knowledge workers from other countries that are having more success getting students to pursue science and mathematics.”

Chang says that although the interest level of students in STEM fields has increased, the retention and achievement of these degree fields have not increased in 20 years.

“Many [students], especially underrepresented students who are high achievers in high school, enter college with an interest in science and the goal of becoming a medical doctor,” says Chang. “When that path doesn’t work out for them, especially at highly selective institutions, they leave science altogether.

“One solution is to do a better job of keeping those students in science by supporting them, and just as importantly, by making sure that they understand that there is a wider range of career options in science besides professional clinical careers like medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and so forth,” he notes. “For example, we need graduates with science degrees to address climate, public health, and environmental issues, but if one mainly seeks a lucrative career, you can graduate and make six-figure salaries with a college degree in either chemical or petroleum engineering.”

Chang says that schools and universities can learn a great deal about better serving underrepresented students from minority-serving and all-women institutions.

“When we looked at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), we saw that they do a much better job of helping African Americans achieve their science degree aspirations,” says Chang. “You take two [black] students with similar high school preparation, and put one at a Historically Black College and the other at a predominantly white institution. The one at the HBCU will have a much better chance of finishing a science degree.”

However, Chang points out, graduates of minority-serving institutions are often stereotyped as ill-prepared, due to the perception that they attended nonselective colleges that lack key scientific resources and the latest equipment, hurting those graduates’ chances of pursuing advanced degrees.

“HBCUs tend to be less well resourced and may not be able to provide students with access to the latest instruments and technology for conducting research,” Chang says. “They don’t usually receive the billions of dollars and science research funding that UCLA or Stanford does. But they are doing something right there, and they provide a great source of science talent and we can certainly learn more from them about how they support their students toward completing a science degree.”

Chang is starting a project that will focus on educational outcomes for Pacific Islanders. He says that the educational disadvantages of this population have been largely overlooked in research, and understanding their challenges can help to create better opportunities for a wider range of underrepresented students.

“This is a population that is facing a lot of obstacles,” says Chang. “Living in concentrated poverty over multiple generations is one of the main issues. Another obstacle is chronic societal neglect. They share a lot of issues with other indigenous populations that were colonized and historically oppressed, including Native Americans. Identifying their challenges and needs is an important start, not just for them, but it will likely have implications for other populations as well.”

Chang says that he enjoyed meeting with Gladwell, who paid him a visit at UCLA while writing “David and Goliath.” Chang said he was impressed with how thoroughly the author and journalist had explored his research for the book, which has been on nonfiction bestseller lists, including those of the New York Times and L.A. Times, for 28 weeks since its release in October 2013.

“One important issue that Gladwell raises is this idea that there is widespread irrational exuberance for the most prestigious institutions, and we always think that regardless, they are the best places for students to go,” says Chang.  “That thinking has been fueled by the obsession with rankings. It’s made the propensity even stronger that students are always going to benefit from going to more highly ranked institutions. And it turns out that that’s not always the case. I think [Gladwell] does a really nice job of subverting our love affair with prestige.

“What [Gladwell] does is take academic research and get us to think about what those studies tell us in a different way, even beyond researchers’ own thoughts about the implications. He’s the kind of person that makes you think differently about your own work and really helps to get it out to a wider audience.”

Dr. Chang earned his doctorate in education at UCLA, and his master’s degree in education at Harvard. He was a Fellow of the Sudikoff Family Institute for Education & New Media in 2004-2005, and served as Faculty Chair of UCLA’s Ed and IS in 2010-2011. In addition, he was elected to serve on the Board of Directors of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) in 2009, and the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Council in 2013.

The author of numerous articles on diversity in higher education, Chang served on the editorial boards of several journals, including the American Educational Research Journal, the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, The Journal of Higher Education, Higher Education Abstracts, Equity and Excellence in Education, The Review of Higher Education, Amerasia, and Liberal Education.