Wells, Ryan

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Professor - Department of Educational Policy, Research & Administration, College of Education
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Disability and Equity in Education
Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research
Higher Education
Ryan Wells is Director of the Center for Student Success Research and Professor of higher education. He primarily investigates questions of college access, equity, and success for underrepresented and/or under-researched groups. Topics for recent research include the ways that socioeconomic status, disability, and geographic location are related to college success. He has received funding from the Spencer Foundation, National Science Foundation, Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, Ford Foundation, AccessLex Institute, Association for Institutional Research, and Massachusetts Campus Compact. His research has been published in top journals such as The Journal of Higher Education, Teachers College Record, Research in Higher Education, and American Journal of Education. He has also received awards for his research from the Northeastern Education Research Association, the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), and the Association for Institutional Research (AIR).

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Search Results

Now showing 1 - 10 of 10
  • Publication
    The Influence of STEM Definitions for Research on Women's College Attainment
    (2018-01-01) Manly, Catherine A.; Wells, Ryan S.; Kommers, Suzan
    Background Prior research has inconsistently operationalized Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, presenting an interpretation challenge. A content analysis of 51 quantitative, gender-focused, higher education-oriented, STEM-related studies in the ERIC database published between January 2010 and July 2018 revealed that only 13 articles used an existing STEM definition. In 15, STEM was not explicitly defined, and others defined STEM independently. This wide range of definitions may lead to confusion or misrepresentation of findings for interventions and practices to support women in STEM. To illustrate the issue and prompt recommendations for future research, this study uses data from the United States National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study (ELS:2002/12) to investigate the connection between STEM definition and the outcome of college degree completion, comparing results by gender for five ways of operationalizing STEM fields. Results We found the size, direction, and significance of the gender gap depended on STEM operationalization. When STEM was defined as high paradigm fields, the odds of women attaining a non-STEM degree were higher than otherwise. When social science fields were included in STEM, there was no statistically significant difference by gender. When looking specifically at fields considered related to science and engineering, the direction of the relationship was reversed. Conclusion While our findings follow expectations about social science fields and gender, it is noteworthy that results regarding STEM degree completion by gender for science and engineering-related fields were opposite those of high paradigm STEM fields. This result highlights that the definition of STEM matters, and inconsistent operationalization in the literature presents an interpretation challenge. We argue the field should strive to find common categorizations of STEM that retain the legitimate variation in how STEM can and should be defined, while providing a basis for consistent comparison. We recommend researchers and practitioners developing research-based practices: 1) interpret research findings understanding potential inconsistency from different STEM operationalizations, 2) explicitly describe STEM operational definitions to enable comparing findings, 3) routinely analyze sensitivity to alternate STEM definitions, and 4) find common STEM categorizations that retain legitimate variation while providing a basis for consistent comparison.
  • Publication
    Narrowed Gaps and Persistent Challenges: Examining Rural-Nonrural Disparities in Postsecondary Outcomes over Time
    (2019-01-01) Wells, Ryan; Manly, Catherine A.; Kommers, Suzan; Kimball, Ezekiel
    Empirical studies have concluded that rural students experience lower rates of college enrollment and degree completion compared to their nonrural peers, but this literature needs to be expanded and updated for a continually changing context. This article examines the rural-nonrural disparities in students’ postsecondary trajectories, influences, and outcomes. By comparing results to past research using similar national data and an identical design, we are able to examine change over time. Results show narrowed gaps from the 1990s into the 2000s, but with rural students still facing persistent challenges and experiencing lower average rates of college enrollment and degree completion.
  • Publication
    Disability in Postsecondary STEM Learning Environments: What Faculty Focus Groups Reveal About Definitions and Obstacles to Effective Support
    (2018-01-01) Bettencourt, Genia; Kimball, Ezekiel; Wells, Ryan S.
    Students with disabilities lag behind their peers without disabilities in success outcomes related to access to, persistence within, and completion of postsecondary degree programs (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2017). Faculty play a key role in shaping student success. To date, however, most of the work exploring faculty attitudes and behaviors has drawn from a broad sample (e.g., Buchanan, Charles, Rigler, & Hart, 2010; Kraska, 2003; Jensen, McCray, Krampe, & Cooper, 2004; Rao & Gartin, 2003), with only limited exploration of the attitudes and behaviors of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] faculty (e.g., Milligan, 2010; Moon, Utschig, Todd, & Bozzorg, 2011). This study seeks to understand how STEM faculty think about and respond to students with disabilities in order to shape effective interventions. Data were collected through a series of four focus groups with 27 participants across 17 STEM majors including lecturers, pre- and post-tenure, and academic administrators. Key findings from the focus groups illuminated the impact of a formal accommodations process, individual approaches to providing support, and perceptions of the STEM climate towards students with disabilities. Recommendations for research and practice include strengthening support and training for faculty in STEM disciplines while continuing to explore these themes across institutional types.
  • Publication
    Who are Rural Students? How Definitions of Rurality Affect Research on College Completion
    (2019-01-01) Manly, Catherine A.; Wells, Ryan S.; Kommers, Suzan
    Given a revived national discourse about rural populations, more educational research on rural students is necessary, including ways that rural students transition to college and the success (or lack thereof) that they experience once there. However, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has changed the definition of rurality used in each iterative dataset over the last few decades, casting doubt on the consistency of what is meant by the term rural. The purpose of this study is to: (a) communicate to the educational research audience various ways of defining rural students, and specifically how NCES has changed their definition of rurality over their last three major data collections; (b) demonstrate how conclusions about rural students’ and their college degree completion may differ based on these alternate NCES definitions; and (c) discuss how this specific example using NCES data relates to the wider landscape of research on rural students. Results show that conclusions about college degree completion change depending on the definition of rurality used for analysis. Therefore, the education research community should consider the options for defining rural students, report transparently about the choices made, consider the sensitivity of results to the definition of rurality, and ultimately build a more robust body of literature concerning rural students’ college success. Gaining definitional clarity will be beneficial, particularly for those who wish to translate their research into practical action for the benefit of rural students.
  • Publication
    Researching Students with Disabilities: The Importance of Critical Perspectives
    (2015-01-01) Vaccaro, Annemarie; Kimball, Ezekiel; Wells, Ryan S.; Ostiguy-Finneran, Benjamin J.
    In this chapter, the authors critically review the current state of quantitative research on college students with disabilities and examine the exclusion of this marginalized population from much of our research. They propose ways to conduct research that more fully accounts for this diverse and important college population. The authors argue that critical quantitative research will produce more thorough knowledge and, in turn, policies and practices that will lead to more equitable college outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • Publication
    Financial Planning for College: Parental Preparation and Capital Conversion
    (2017-01-01) Manly, Catherine A.; Wells, Ryan S.; Bettencourt, Genia
    This study explores the conversion of cultural capital into economic capital, and specifically financial capital in the form of parental financial planning for children’s college education, including reported financial preparations and savings. Using data from the Education Longitudinal Study (ELS:2002), logistic regression-based analyses of aspects of cultural capital indicated that parental involvement exhibited the most prevalent relationship with financial planning and the amount saved, and that parents’ expectations, but not their aspirations, corresponded to engagement in financial planning. Findings support the conclusion that some parents convert part of their cultural capital to financial capital in preparation for paying for their child’s college education, perhaps representing a typically hidden facet of social class reproduction.
  • Publication
    First Generation Students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
    (2019-01-01) Wells, Ryan S.; Bettencourt, Genia M.
    Executive Summary First generation (First Gen) students—those who do not have a parent or guardian who attained a four-year degree—represent a third of all college students in the United States. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), a quarter of the undergraduate student body is First Gen. Nationally as well as locally, First Gen students often experience lower rates of academic success due to factors such as a lack of family familiarity with the college going process, lower levels of academic preparation, and limited finances. UMass Amherst is undertaking efforts to improve conditions for success for First Gen students. As part of a steering committee on First Gen issues, the Center for Student Success Research (CSSR) led a mixed methods study of First Gen students on campus during the 2018-2019 academic year. The aim of the study is to better understand who First Gen students at UMass are, the experiences they are having, and how to better serve them.
  • Publication
    Mirror on the Field: Gender, Authorship, and Research Methods in Higher Education’s Leading Journals
    (2017-01-01) Williams, Elizabeth A.; Kolek, Ethan A.; Saunders, Daniel B.; Remaly, Alicia; Wells, Ryan S.
    Framed conceptually by gender equity, gender homophily, the contest regime of blind peer-review publishing, and the gendered nature of the quantitative–qualitative debate, this study investigated the intersection of authorship, gender, and methodological characteristics of 408 articles published from 2006 to 2010 in 3 major higher education journals. Nonbinary coding of author gender based on pronouns identified via Web searches virtually eliminated missing data and likely reduced error. Results suggest movement toward gender parity over time; however, women’s representation among authors does not appear commensurate with representation in the field. Findings revealed gendered use of research methods, with qualitative articles more likely to be first-authored by women and quantitative articles more likely to be first-authored by men. Nevertheless, articles first-authored by both women and men were more likely to use quantitative than qualitative methods. Quantitative research, more so than qualitative research, appears to be a site of cogender collaboration, which has increased over time. This portrait of the intersection of authorship, gender, and research methods provides an empirical foundation for discussion and inquiry about gender and scholarship in the field, and the results of our study are generative for future research.
  • Publication
    Geographic mobility and social inequality among Peruvian university students
    (2017-01-01) Wells, Ryan S.; Cuenca, Ricardo; Blanco Ramírez, Gerardo; Aragón, Jorge
    The purpose of this study was to explore geographic mobility among university students in Peru and to understand how mobility patterns differ by region and by demographic indicators of inequality. The ways that students may be able to move geographically in order to access quality higher education within the educational system can be a driver of equality or inequality, depending on who is able to take advantage. Using data from a university census, we examine how demographic indicators of inequality are related to geographic mobility for university attendance, how prior geographic mobility predicts later mobility for university attendance, and how these relationships differ based on the number and quality of universities in a region. Results show that sociodemographic variables related to social inequality explain a substantial amount of students' postsecondary mobility. However, some of these relationships do not operate in the same way in all of the regions. Depending on the availability of universities and their quality, patterns of association between inequality and geographic mobility change. Implications for higher education policy as well as further research examining geographic mobility and inequality in education are discussed.
  • Publication
    STEM degree completion and first-generation college students. A cumulative disadvantage approach to the outcomes gap
    (2020-01-01) Bettencourt, Genia; Manly, Catherine A.; Kimball, Ezekiel; Wells, Ryan