Although community colleges contribute to STEM education and the workforce in a variety of ways, it is impossible to determine how much they contribute—or to assess the effectiveness of policies and programs designed to strengthen STEM education in community colleges—without agreement on what constitutes STEM. In this report, the authors review the conceptual challenges of defining STEM and propose a definition that recognizes STEM-oriented contributions from the dual missions of community colleges: preparing students for transfer to a four-year institution, which the authors refer to as STEM-Transfer, and training students for technical jobs—largely unaccounted for in popular definitions of STEM education—which they call STEM-Tech. STEM-Transfer relates directly to programs of study that teach explicitly STEM subject matter (biological sciences; chemistry; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; engineering; mathematics; physics; and mechanic/production technologies), while STEM-Tech encompasses a range of technical programs of study—including those in computer and information sciences and the health professions—that community colleges offer.
The authors then provide an accounting of STEM within the community college sector and develop a catalog of STEM programs and awards. Broadly, community colleges appear to provide significant amounts of STEM coursework, and there are more than three times as many community college students enrolled in STEM-Tech programs than in STEM-Transfer programs; similarly, community colleges award many more associate degrees in STEM-Tech than in STEM-Transfer. The authors conclude with an analysis of how many community college graduates work in STEM and of their relative collective earnings in the workforce. Based on their findings, they argue that a broader definition of STEM is more appropriate and should be adopted by federal agencies and researchers.