STEM and Blacks - Higher Education
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STEM and Blacks

by Brian Joseph

More Blacks are attending colleges and universities than ever before. Over the last 60 years, the percentage of Blacks attending and graduating from colleges and Universities has nearly quadrupled from less than 5 percent in 1960 to nearly 15 percent in 1998 and 22 percent in 2015. For the last 50+ years Blacks have enjoyed access to opportunities available in every occupation and profession, however Blacks still gravitate toward the same types of professions.

Many of these professions require little to any formal education, thus resulting in salaries that are far below the national median. The median household income in 2016 was $59,000, for Blacks it was $39,460. Seemingly every year, political pundits, social activists and the like cite the income disparity between Blacks and Whites, as if this result is uncontrollable. One can conjecture that there are many reasons for this disparity and therefore too difficult to identify the sources, but is it really that complex? Arguably, this has nothing to do with opportunity and everything to do with active decision making. It should come as no surprise to anyone that there is a direct correlation between degrees earned and long-term earning potential. Plain and simple, graduates in the areas of engineering, math and science typically earn more than other fields.

Dr. Brian Joseph

A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Blacks are still employed primarily as service workers, transportation and office occupations; these professions represent over half the jobs held by Blacks. Only 22 percent of Blacks hold positions in Management, Financial Operations and Professional Occupations. It is of significance that Black women represent the majority of Blacks in each of the aforementioned fields requiring formal education. A 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland listed Business Administration, followed by Psychology, Nursing and Criminal Justice as the most popular majors for Blacks. By no means should individuals be swayed from selecting career paths for which they have a strong passion. Those jobs primarily selected by Blacks are essential and for many rewarding. The reality is they do not carry the same immediate or long term earning potential as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers. In STEM related fields, Blacks are severely underrepresented, as Blacks only represent 6 percent of the total population of engineers, compared to Asians 16 percent, Whites 12 percent and Hispanics 9.4 percent. It is hard to believe that Blacks are simply not as interested in STEM fields as their counterparts. Nor can it be blamed on that fact that there are less Blacks in the US than other races. Asians represent 5 percent of the U.S. population, while Blacks represent 13 percent.

Over the past decade, many in the college/university academic communities, as well as those in K-12 sector have promoted STEM majors and careers. In an ever changing society, fueled by technology and science, these careers for many represent the future. Among Blacks, Whites, Asians and Hispanics, Blacks represent the lowest percentage of students earning degrees in STEM majors. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a recent look at the racial demographics at some of the elite STEM institutions in the world (MIT (6 percent), Cal Tech (1 percent) and Harvey Mudd (3 percent),  Black students represent a very small portion of the enrollment population. Moreover, institutions do not separate African-Americans from African immigrants or first-generation children of immigrants from African countries. Historically, immigrants and children of immigrants from African countries, i.e. Nigeria and Kenya have represented a very large percentage of the Blacks enrolled.

It is noteworthy that overall, STEM careers on average earn $15,000 more than non-STEM majors. This is not to say that STEM related careers are for everyone but in many cases, these careers are not even considered. Black high school and college students who are pondering a major may be persuaded by family members and the like to choose another major/career path, simply because of the perception of rigor, namely the advanced math and science classes required to obtain a STEM degree. This is also in the wake of state educational departments, such as California Department of Education adopting instructional shifts and criteria requirements that are aimed at closing the gaps that have existed with regards to access to science and engineering curriculums. Many political pundits and Black activists cite the disparity between incomes earned by Blacks and Whites. However, the process for attending college, being accepted, choosing a major, graduating and selecting a career are the same for all races. Not to mention there is a disparity in income between Asians and Whites, mainly because of career selection. In short, Blacks must resist selecting classes, majors and subsequent careers simply to avoid rigor and because of cultural tradition.

Dr. Brian Joseph is a freelance writer and educational consultant. 

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