Understanding the STEM Path through High School and into University Programs

High school math and science success drives university STEM enrollment

Success in math and science courses in high school is the main factor for students staying on the path to study science , technology , engineering and mathematics (STEM) in university , according to a study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). The study found that good grades in math and science were strongly linked with continuing in those courses in upper levels of high school , once they were no longer mandatory for completing a diploma.

Project Description

Understanding the STEM Path through High School and into University Programs is based on two administrative data sets on the high school performance of individual students in Ontario , as well as the university programs they apply to and in which they register. High school performance data were provided by the Ministry of Education for the cohort that enrolled in grade 9 in the fall of 2005. The data track the students for five years and also include information on gender , birth year , home postal code and place of birth. The postal code allowed for linking to neighbourhood characteristics from the 2006 census , such as family income. University application and registration information from 2004 to 2012 was provided by the Ontario Universities’ Application Center (OUAC) and also includes gender and home postal code. In total 135 ,307 students are included in the Ministry of Education data and 648 ,033 students in the OUAC data.


Having success in science courses in high school is particularly critical for applying to or registering in STEM programs at university. Passing a Level 4 (final year) university track science course and achieving a high GPA in those courses had a powerful positive effect on the decision to choose a STEM program at university. Math courses also had a positive effect , but much smaller than science.

The greatest predictor of whether students stay on a STEM path is academic performance. Non-academic factors , such as gender , place of birth , average family income and other neighbourhood characteristics , play predictable but smaller roles in application and registration decisions. The authors of the study argue that more research and better data are needed to understand the mix of individual , home and school factors that ultimately account for success in high school science and math.

Authors of Understanding the STEM Path through High School and into University Programs are Martin Dooley and A. Abigail Payne , McMaster University; Mitchell Steffler , Seneca College and Jessica Wagner , University of Toronto.​