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Leading by Example

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This past week, I participated in a two-day summit on STEM diversity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In addition to the host campus, the meeting included representatives from 14 other highly selective research institutions, including Harvard, Stanford, Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley, and UT Austin. MIT convened these campuses to openly discuss respective challenges and successes in increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of those entering STEM disciplines with a targeted focus on the undergraduate experience.

All but one of the universities present at the meeting are deemed “very high research activity” institutions by The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, a common metric by which researchers identify the quality and selectivity of American colleges and universities. An impressive body of research shows selective institutions as producing positive minority student outcomes, such as high graduation rates, yet the literature on minority students majoring in STEM disciplines at these institutions depicts an often negative undergraduate experience. Research coming out of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) depicts a negative relationship between institutional selectivity and academic outcomes – including a sense of belonging and staying in STEM majors past the freshman year – for minority men and women in STEM. My own work on the four-year persistence of women of color in STEM, which utilizes recent HERI data, confirms these findings.

Within the selective university environment, a completion gap is also evident. Of the close to 12,000 Black women who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in 2005 from the country’s 96 “very high research activity” universities, 22 percent completed a B.S. in STEM. The rate for both Hispanic and Native American women was 19 percent, respectively. This compares to 24 percent of White and 34 percent of Asian American/Pacific Islander women. Comparable rates are higher for men of every background. Of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black, Hispanic, and Native American men, 27 percent, 30 percent, and 31 percent were in STEM, respectively. This compares to 35 percent for Whites and 48 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders.

Often contrary to their reputation of providing great academic and human resources, elite campuses engage in academic practices that have been found to discourage students from staying in STEM majors. Not the least of which is an institutional culture that values research over teaching and mentoring and actively discourages students through antiquated pedagogy and competitive grading practices. The fact that these very institutions are some of the most equipped in the country to train future scientists and engineers and prepare students for advanced study in these fields means an incredible loss of talent. The magnitude of such opportunity lost is especially tragic given the barriers that minority students must overcome to enroll in STEM in college, only to be potentially turned away from these fields due to an inhospitable academic climate at the undergraduate level.

I further question the widely established practice of math and science faculty to view some students as having academic deficits and thus incapable of pursing STEM majors and careers. Instead, faculty should seek to meet students where they are and work to achieve their individual potential through high expectations and peer and faculty support networks.

Despite these challenges, MIT and others who attended the two-day meeting are taking two very important steps.  First, as premier American institutions, they are rightfully recognizing their role as leaders in undergraduate education, which includes robust undergraduate research programs that contribute to STEM persistence. Second, they are leading by example in convening leadership around this very important topic, from which tangible activity will hopefully coalesce.

Lorelle L. Espinosa, Ph.D., is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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