WASHINGTON, D.C. – When it comes to increasing the number of minority men who pursue a career in the STEM fields, success largely hinges on a matter of money.
That was one of the key points made Tuesday morning at NASA headquarters during an event billed as the “Symposium on Supporting Underrepresented Minority Males in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).”
Getting individuals to enter STEM fields and careers is not as much an issue as paying them enough money to want to stay in STEM occupations, said panelist Dr. Nicole Smith, senior economist at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
“The key reason is pay. Let’s be frank about that,” Smith said during a panel discussion at the symposium titled “Implications from the Minority Male STEM Initiative.”
The initiative, also known as M2STEM , is a project of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, or APLU, that is meant for APLU to help institutions of higher education identify, retain and graduate more men from minority backgrounds in the STEM fields.
Smith—one of four panelists to speak on the implications of a new M2STEM survey released Tuesday—said that, while STEM salaries are competitive, wages have not risen as fast as they have in managerial, professional and health fields, which offer “greater financial opportunity” to students and workers with STEM-related abilities.
“But it’s not only about money,” Smith said. “Once you get to disaggregation by race and ethnicity and gender, the question of diversion and persons leaving the field becomes one of interests and values.”
At the same time, Smith said, “STEM is the field to be in” when it comes to longevity and STEM fields also represent one of the few “equal opportunity employers in this country.”
“STEM is the only field that seems to not really care about all the other factors in deciding what you actually earn once you graduate from college,” Smith said. She noted that STEM is one field where Asian Americans earn higher wages than White males, and where the wage gap between men and women is “much slimmer than anywhere else.”
Higher education, however, is reluctant to talk about money issues “because it highlights categories that won’t earn as much,” Smith said.
“I always tell my students it’s better to get a C in chemistry than an A in literature,” Smith said. “The data support this.”
Smith’s remarks were just one of several that touched on issues of money.
Though the M2STEM survey found that minority male students rated historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) and Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs) higher for faculty relationships and sense of belonging than they rated those things at predominantly White institutions, or PWIs, Dr. Shirley Malcolm, head of education and resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggested that funding still has to be based on something other than how many minority students a particular institution enrolls.
“There’s something different about minority serving institutions,” Malcolm said. “But one of the things I worry about is for some particular categories of institutions, they are minority enrolling, not necessarily minority serving.”
“We have to be very careful in terms of the policies we put in place for an institution to be eligible for funding,” Malcolm said. Funding, she said, should not be based on “just a numerical bar, but some type of performance bar.”
She also recommended re-consideration of faculty incentives.
“We understand that in many cases you have people who really want to provide research opportunities and things like that for students,” Malcolm said. “But when faculty are rewarded for research grants instead of teaching or mentoring, these kinds of policies push you in a particular direction.”
Panelist David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, also called for more thoughtful policies as they relate to funding.
“The controversy lately has been around performance-based funding,” Wilson said. He said he supported the implementation of outcome measures that reward institutions that “do the heavy lifting.”
“We are taking students with all kinds of deficits but with loads of potential and turning those students into gems,” Wilson said of his institution. “But that requires a lot of heavy lifting.”
Funding should be set up to support institutions that graduate higher numbers of low-income students, he said.
Panelist Larry Abele, director of the Institute for Academic Leadership at Florida State University, said administrative backing is key for universities to tackle issues of minority male achievement in STEM.
“I don’t think it’s very difficult to get faculty involved,” Abele said. “But it’s key that university administrators provide the support.”
Dr. Lorenzo Esters, vice president at APLU, said opportunities to get more minority males into STEM fields should not begin freshman year in college.
“There needs to be quality counseling and advisement in elementary and secondary (education),” he said, noting how students in the M2STEM survey cited teachers as one of the major factors in their decision to pursue STEM studies.
He also recommended rigorous curriculums and college preparatory courses in high school and seizing other opportunities to change the academic trajectory of students earlier in their K-12 experience.
“But one of the challenges is how do you prove success … over a significant period of time?” Esters said. “It takes time to know if you have success.”