Diversifying our STEM Workforce

Ryan Kelsey

Ryan Kelsey

STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics) education is all the rage. The President (in his State of the Union speeches) and the First Lady (most recently at the Working Families Summit) talk about it regularly. Reports on the importance of STEM for our country are published every month by leading think tanks, economists, and other organizations – my favorite from this month is from Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution, in which he discusses the lengthy vacancies experienced by companies trying to fill STEM jobs, due in part to the difficulty of finding qualified applicants.

One topic missing from the national spotlight is the need to diversify the STEM workforce. In order to meet the needs of our country’s global competitive edge, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reports that the U.S. needs to produce another 1 million** STEM graduates beyond current rates. To make that sizeable increase a reality, we will need a much more diverse set of STEM graduates than we currently produce. Today, less than 10% of STEM professions are filled by non-white Americans. It is worth noting that we would need to triple that percentage to match the demographic makeup of our citizenry, but even to meet the Council’s goal of 1 million will require a huge shift to expand STEM opportunities to more underrepresented students. Minority students present perhaps the largest untapped population of STEM graduates, and drawing on that reserve is a crucial strategy to reaching the United States’ full potential, since minority students on many campuses complete STEM degrees at less than half the rate of their white counterparts.

Why don’t we have more STEM graduates of color? It’s not a lack of interest – research clearly shows that about 1 in 3 students, regardless of race, has an interest in getting a degree in a STEM field, and that has been true for years.

Is it aptitude or preparedness? Hardly. And this is where Minority-Serving Institutions come in. For example, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) were developed to nurture Black student success, and they have been particularly effective in STEM fields. According to National Science Foundation statistics, between 2006 and 2010, the list of 20 schools that graduated the majority of Black students in STEM fields included 10 HBCUs. Across sub-fields, HBCUs are equally or significantly stronger in awarding degrees to Black students, especially considering that HBCUs make up less than 3% of U.S. postsecondary institutions. For instance, of the bachelor degrees in mathematics and statistics awarded to Blacks in 2010, 32.5% of them were awarded by HBCUs; in the physical sciences, 36.6%. These figures suggest that STEM-related teaching and academic support practices at HBCUs are more effective than those at other schools for producing Black graduates. And HBCUs do this work much more efficiently than their Predominantly White Institution counterparts – operating with far less resources in today’s current budget climate for education and often with less selective admissions criteria.

These accomplishments need to be celebrated and shared with other types of institutions, particularly those that are experiencing growth in minority enrollment and are struggling to keep those students from diverting out of STEM (see what Penn’s Center is doing along these lines with support from the Helmsley Charitable Trust).

What are some of the chief causes for students leaving STEM?  The number one cited concern is poor teaching quality in the foundational STEM ‘gateway’ (or some might say ‘gatekeeper’) courses.  Beyond that, insufficient wrap-around supports such as advising, course sequencing, and research opportunities hinder students’ ability to see the relevance of material taught in foundational courses to real-world problems and its application in professional science and technology careers.

Many first-generation college students with an interest in STEM have a one-track mind for medical school. If they fall off that track for some reason, they quite often walk away from STEM and, in some cases, drop out of college entirely. This is a missed opportunity for many students and for the country given recent labor market trends, which show whole sectors of middle-skill STEM jobs waiting for students who pursue fields in IT (see Thai-Huy Nguyen’s post about computing), energy, and health technologies, to name a few.

So what can we do about it? The Helmsley Charitable Trust is attempting to build some of this awareness through initiatives such as AAC&U’s TIDES program with Project Kaleidoscope, involving a mix of MSIs and PWIs, which aspires to attract and retain students in Computer Science and IT through professional development for faculty on culturally inclusive teaching practices.

We are also working with large state systems on STEM undergraduate educational reforms, including an active RFP process with the California State University system, which contains 17 MSIs and has one of the largest system-wide enrollments of minority students in the country.

But this is not about any one foundation or campus. There are several foundations and federal agencies interested in supporting the excellent STEM education work of all types of institutions – and we need Minority Serving Institutions to show us all how to help more students of color get STEM credentials. Those students and their families will benefit from better employment opportunities and the United States economy will grow as a result, which improves everyone’s life.

Ryan Kelsey is a Program Officer for the Education Program at the Helmsley Charitable Trust where he primarily focuses on national work in undergraduate STEM education.

**Rothwell would say the number is even higher if you count a broader set of professions as STEM-related, see the Hidden STEM Economy for more.