How Should Boards Work to Increase Minority Enrollment in STEM Fields?

By April 14, 2011 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

The lack of minority participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) studies is a growing problem. In the United States in 2006, underrepresented minority groups made up 28.5 percent of the national population but accounted for just 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in STEM occupations. University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski talks about this issue and how institutions and their boards can address it.

What is the root of the historic underrepresentation of minority students in STEM studies?

In 2007 the National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” argued that to maintain its global competitiveness, America must invest in building research, encouraging innovation, and growing a strong STEM workforce. That includes increasing the percentage of college-educated Americans with STEM degrees from 6 to 10 percent. While the science and engineering sector of the nation’s labor market is growing faster than any other, minority groups underrepresented in these disciplines are the most rapidly growing in the American population, and fewer than 3 percent of all college-educated underrepresented minorities have degrees in STEM fields. The study recommends tripling the number of minority STEM graduates.

The primary reason for the underrepresentation of minority students in STEM is that too few have developed strong math, science, and language skills in K–12. While higher ed will need to be increasingly involved in strengthening K–12 STEM education, it can address this situation even more immediately. Currently, only 20 percent of minority undergraduate students who enter institutions majoring in STEM disciplines actually complete STEM degrees. (Comparable figures for white and Asian-American undergraduates are 33 percent and 42 percent, respectively, highlighting the need for strengthening science teaching and learning for all students.)

Many of these students begin college with fairly strong preparation, including Advanced Placement credits in math and science. The primary reason students leave science, however, is poor academic performance. A growing number of institutions are recognizing the need for strategies to support first-year students. Both UMBC and the University System of Maryland are redesigning courses to emphasize group work, using technology in the classroom, renovating classroom space to promote more student-peer interaction, and developing faculty in STEM fields. Our efforts are leading to success for increasing numbers of minority (and other) students.

Why is it important, both for young people and for the country, to get more minority students into STEM studies?

In previous years, we have relied heavily on students from other countries to build America’s science and engineering workforce. Now more of those students are returning to their native countries after completing degrees. In addition, we need American students from a range of backgrounds to become involved in a wide variety of societal challenges—including environmental issues, health disparities, and infrastructure needs. Equally important, national agencies are looking for well prepared American scientists and engineers to support our defense and intelligence communities.

How can boards help their institutions attract and retain these students?

Boards can help by learning more about STEM education at both the K–12 and higher-education levels, and by examining the problem of most students from all backgrounds not succeeding in STEM majors. Boards should also develop policies and incentives that encourage faculty members to work more effectively with these students and help identify financial support for such efforts. Recent results of international STEM tests highlight the fact that America is at the crossroads in developing its science and technology talent. Our global leadership will depend on our attention to this pivotal issue.