Programming: A Mark of Inequality?

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Demand for programmers in varying sectors and positions are growing, and this trend does not appear to be slowing down. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, which cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth forsoftware developers and computer systems analysts will jump 22.8% and 24.5% between 2012 and 2022, respectively. But who will fill these positions? Considering the current conditions of our K-12 system, what type of students are expected to benefit from a technologically-driven economy? Who will be left behind?

On June 16, 2014, TIME’s writer, Tim Bajarin, published an on-line piece (“Why Basic Coding Should be a Mandatory Class in Junior High“) on the importance of incorporating basic coding in the K-12 curriculum. He argues that more and more, technology in all of its forms, has become a formidable and growing presence in our daily lives–transforming (and in some cases, improving) the way we live and shaping the future employment opportunities for our children. Bajarin suggests that if schools do not incorporate basic programming into the core curriculum, thereby providing students with a fundamental platform to build on and advance their understanding of technology, they risk graduating students with insufficient skills. In other words, learning to program and understanding its value to our lives is crucial to taking advantage of, or benefitting from, an economy that will, sooner enough, judge you on your ease and ability to operate in a work environment that is heavily managed by (constantly) new devices and software. Put simply, a child’s opportunities will be increasingly dependent on her degree of technological literacy.

As someone who spent the majority of his childhood in the Silicon ValIey, and witnessed the awesome social and economic growth of my local economy, I wholeheartedly agree with Bajarin. Students, today, should be exposed to the basics of programming early on so that they, at the very least, remain relevant and prepared to benefit from the opportunities of tomorrow. However, as a first-generation college student, raised by a single-mother, I also witnessed a quite disturbing pattern of growing inequality. Silicon Valley’s corporate elite and the minions that followed in their footsteps were primarily White and male.

According to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, Blacks make up 6% of all computer scientists, Hispanics/Latinos at 5% and Native Americans at less than 0.1%, whereas Whites make 68% of this population. These data mirror the persistent academic underachievement of minorities in our school system. We also cannot ignore the paltry presence of women in the sciences. Although college enrollment and degree attainment have increased for women across higher education, they only make up thirty one percent of total computer scientists in the country. Given that “21% of those who took the AP computer science exam in 2011 were female and only 29 of the test takers nationwide that year were black–less than 1% of the total,” according to Yasmin Kafai and Quinn Burke, increased female and racial minority representation in the workforce in the near future seems highly unlikely. With such glaring disparities in occupational achievement by race and gender, the potential to succeed in this new economy represents a marker of grave inequality.

Ensuring that all students have the chance to benefit from a technologically-driven economy, we must push for greater technological literacy–especially in the form of basic programming–and remember that such effort must take in account those very students who are less likely to be enrolled in schools that have the infrastructure to incorporate new curriculum and hire the qualified teachers to implement it. In order to do so, we must also be wary of the demands of the for-profit sector of the economy for these professionals that will likely constrain all but the most affluent schools in the nation. But if we are to prepare all students for a fast paced world, one that is imbued with boundless and unpredictable innovation, we must consider how we are to provide them with the knowledge and tools to hold on.

For less advantageous students, exposure to basic programming early on in their education can matter a great deal more for them and their families’ future. Without it, we risk leaving behind a generation of students susceptible to an economy that will leave no room for them or their dreams.

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at PennGSE and a research assistant at Penn’s CMSIs. 

This article was jointly published with the Huffington Post on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014. 

Student Reflection: Memories from Morehouse

Desmond Diggs

Desmond Diggs

Morehouse College has been the breeding ground for some of the most pivotal African American figures in American history. When the time came for me to apply to college, I filed a single application – early decision. There was no other place in the world that I would have rather spent my undergraduate years. I remember the first time I stood at the feet of the Martin Luther King. Jr. statue in front of the chapel that is named in his honor. I looked up at the bronze figure of this giant of a man and dreamed of what my experience might look like. I never imagined, as I looked up to the man my parents saw fit to name me after, that in that very same chapel I would meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Mayor Andrew Young, or Dr. David Satcher. I couldn’t have fathomed that on those very steps I would have the opportunity to share my initiation into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated or to speak in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church on national television, or even to be mentored by Christine King Farris. Though my experience was rich, l hardly believe it was atypical. It is often said;  “you can always tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much else.” When it comes to Mother Morehouse, I have yet to hear an argument that has made me consider that I would have been better served by another institution. However, given the present challenges of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, I wonder how many other young men and women will be able to leave their respective institutions with such fond memories.

Morehouse, like nearly all of our HBCUs, finds itself in a difficult position. Unexpected policy changes mandated by the federal government have jeopardized loan eligibility for many students and families. Such changes have disproportionately affected the “forty-six percent of students at historically black colleges [who] come from families with incomes lower than $34,000” (UNCF). In just his first year, President John Wilson C ’75 recently terminated 70 members of the faculty and closed a residence hall in an effort to address severe budget shortfalls.

Despite the present challenges, I still believe that Morehouse is the right place for the betterment of young men. Morehouse is a place where 500 young black men are bestowed their Bachelor’s degrees annually, while targeting first generation college students and those with limited access. Morehouse, like all HBCUs, holds a special place in the African-American narrative and in the greater narrative of the United States.

Morehouse men must respond to these hurdles and, in doing so, they must openly acknowledge that they cannot do it alone. There is a role for each Historically Black College and University—as well as other Minority Serving Institutions—in meeting their collective goal to educate those students who been left out. The survival of these colleges and universities and their ability to effectively shape our society will depend on new levels of coordination, cooperation, and resource-sharing that will bolster the mission of each. The Morehouse Man of tomorrow, as well as the illustrious men and women who will be the torchbearers of their respective MSIs, will no doubt find themselves at the right place, at the right time. If they are wise, they will also find a means to empower one another to new heights and recognize that what is good for the few is good for the whole.

Desmond Diggs is a graduate student in the International Education Development Program at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. He is also a Wharton Social Impact Fellow and the founder of Teach For Liberia, Incorporated, a teacher recruitment initiative aimed at recruiting talented teachers to bolster the fledgling education system in post-conflict Liberia. His research interests include, development and post-conflict economics, economics of education, and ICT as tools for development. 

The Role of Latino/as in Achieving the 2020 National Degree Attainment Goal

Andrés Castro Samayoa, Kerry Madden & Karla Silva

Andrés Castro Samayoa, Kerry Madden & Karla Silva

A recent report by Excelencia in Education reveals the critical role that Latino/as play in achieving Obama’s goal to become the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.  The reports states that, in order to achieve this goal, 5.5 million more Latino/as need to earn a degree by 2020.

Latino/a Youth
Deborah Santiago* and Emily Galdeano Calderón, the report’s authors, highlight how Latino/as account for a substantial segment of the nation’s younger population, thus requiring important consideration from institutions and policymakers invested in making positive inroads towards improving the nation’s degree attainment. For example, the report states that the median age for Latino/as is 27, whereas the median age for Whites is 42. Similarly, Latino/a youth represents 22% of the nation’s K-12 population. To be able to work towards Obama’s goal, it is important that initiatives take into account Latino/as’ performance throughout the entire educational pipeline, from K-12 through college.

Measuring Latino/a Success
In addition to Latino/as’ representation amongst U.S. youth, the report provides three metrics to track the closing equity gap in college completion: graduation rates for first-time, full-time first-years; completion per 100 full-time equivalent students; and completions relative to the population in need. Across these metrics, Latino/as lag behind between 4-9% when compared to Whites. As their report states, “none of these measures capture the entire ‘story’ of equity in degree completion,” yet, by providing different metrics, Santiago and Calderón remind us that policymakers and institutional leaders cannot rely on a sole metric to gain a definitive panorama of the complex educational landscape in this country.  Nor can increasing the critical mass of Latino/as in higher education be sufficient to reach Obama’s outlined goals.  It is clear that if the United States intends to reach this educational benchmark, an educational model mindful of Latinos/as’ specific needs must be adopted.

Questioning the role of for-profit institutions
Unsurprisingly, the report’s data reiterates what many of us know: Texas, Florida, and California are key states in educating Latino/as given their large Latino/a populations. All of the institutions conferring the most bachelor’s and/or associate’s degrees to Latino/as are found in one of these three states.  The University of Phoenix stands out as the sole for-profit institution in the midst of these three states’ public institutions’ accomplishments.  Conferring over 2,500 Bachelor’s and over 2,400 Associates to Hispanics, the University of Phoenix is one of the Top 5 institutions conferring degrees to Hispanics. Surprisingly, these numbers represent less than 10% of the total degrees conferred by the University of Phoenix. Although this institution’s conferral of degrees makes a contribution to the nation’s aspiration to increase the proportion of college graduates, one must wonder whether institutions like the University of Phoenix are doing a disservice to its students given that
over a quarter of its graduates default less than three years after they begin repaying their loans. 

Excelencia in Education’s report reiterates the importance of race-sensitive approaches to ensuring the nation’s success in achieving Obama’s 2020 goals. At the same time, their data invites us to consider whether obtaining a degree necessarily means that these students are equipped for success. If a for-profit institution that disproportionately contribute to the nation’s student debt becomes one of the primary providers of degrees to Hispanics, it is evidence that we have a long road ahead before achieving sustainable financial and social prosperity for Latino/a graduates. Merely providing access to college for Latino/a students is not enough:  students need the resources and support to both complete their degrees and aspire to a life that is unhindered by debilitating debt after graduation. Ensuring that these concerns are also part of the conversation is critical if we aim to fully achieve Obama’s 2020 goal.

*Deborah Santiago is a member of the Penn Center’s For Minority Serving Institutions’ Advisory Board.

Andrés Castro Samayoa is a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and Ph.D. student in higher education at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Kerry Madden received her Master’s Degree in higher education from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in Spring 2014. Karla Silva received her Master’s Degree in higher education from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in Spring 2014 and was also a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.