Black students have long been underrepresented among science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates, and experts say the disparity could soon worsen. New data published by the Pew Research Center and highlighted by The Hechinger Report show that Black students earned just 7 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2018 and hold just 7 percent of jobs in fields requiring those degrees, even though more than 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black.
Those gaps, advocates say, could further widen in the coming years following COVID-19-related disruptions. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment of Black students at U.S. colleges is down more than 7 percent this semester compared with spring 2020.
Sense of belonging key to degree completion
In one study from the University of Texas at Austin and Florida International University, around one in five Black, white, and Hispanic students declared a STEM major; that rate was consistent across all three groups. Disparities emerged, however, when it came to degree completion, as 34 percent, 43 percent, and 58 percent of Black, Hispanic, and white students who had initially declared STEM majors, respectively, completed a STEM degree.
Amida Koroma, a junior at the University of Maryland, says that imposter syndrome—when a student believes they are undeserving of their accomplishments—is a central hurdle. Koroma, who recently changed her major from bioengineering to psychology, recalls wondering whether she belonged in engineering classes where she was the only Black student and peers appeared uncertain of her capabilities. “I wear a hijab, and being a Black Muslim woman, it’s like being minority on minority on minority,” she added.
Research has shown that feelings of isolation and exclusion can deter students of color from completing STEM degrees, and institutions are taking note. Some universities (including Georgetown) have launched summer bridge programs that bring underrepresented students to campus before freshman year and help prepare them for higher-level STEM courses.
Winthrop University in South Carolina pairs its summer bridge offering with financial aid, academic support, and research opportunities. Purdue University, meanwhile, credits its summer academic “boot camp” with completion gains. Students who participated in the 2013 session achieved a six-year graduation rate that was 11 percentage points higher than the overall completion rate for the College of Engineering.
The high cost of underrepresentation
Virginia Booth Womack, director of Purdue’s Minority Engineering Program, says that underrepresentation in STEM fields stifles innovation and growth. Without a diverse workforce, she says, it won’t be possible to ensure that technologies—facial recognition, for instance—work universally. “In order to reflect the needs of the entire society, you need people who can innovate in that space and represent the needs of their culture, their community and the world,” she says.
If STEM fields don’t address systemic issues that sideline scientists of color, “we are not only hurting the competitiveness of our great country on the world stage, but we collectively are losing out on great discoveries, new insights, and new technology,” says Cato Laurencin, CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science.
How Georgetown is working to create an equitable STEM community
Georgetown’s Regents STEM Scholars Program seeks to address the critical shortage of underserved and first-generation college students who successfully complete degrees in the sciences. The program offers instruction, mentoring, and online technologies that facilitate student engagement. By providing more support, more structure, and more opportunities for these students, the program aims to create a scientific community in which all scientists feel welcomed and valued. Learn more about the Regents STEM Scholars Program.