Improving underrepresented students’ path to high-quality STEM careers

Community colleges and minority-serving institutions are finding ways to support underrepresented students in pursuing STEM careers—opportunities that, for years, were primarily available to students at elite institutions. According to the American Council on Education, STEM degrees accounted for just 12.6 percent and 16.7 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in 2016 by Black students and Hispanic students, respectively. In contrast, 34.7 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by Asian students that year, and 20.5 percent of those earned by white students, were in STEM fields.

“Ramping up STEM education at community colleges has been floated as one way to address the yawning skills gap” in fields such as information technology and data science, but “student outcomes at community colleges tend to lag compared to public colleges and universities,” writes Education Dive. Researchers and administrators attending last month’s Association of American Colleges and Universities annual conference shared several ways their institutions are working to close that gap.

Encouraging transfers, offering research opportunities

At the conference, presenters said they had significantly increased graduation rates by creating summer bridge programs, offering STEM clubs to build community, providing research opportunities, and encouraging frequent meetings with advisors.

Colleges participating in the Central Florida STEM Alliance emphasized that giving community college students the ability to conduct research is key to improving their pathways to STEM careers. “If they don’t do research now, in their first and second years, when they come to [a four-year] campus as juniors, what are they going to do?” John Fynn, senior program specialist at Polk State College, said. “Their research has to start right here in community college.”

Conference attendees also discussed how state policies that increase tuition when students amass excess credits—policies originally devised to speed completion—can discourage students from exploring STEM career paths. Remedial math courses also can pose barriers, leading some institutions to streamline math pathways.

Encouraging more equitable corporate engagement

Education Dive reports that large technology firms also are getting involved, collaborating with two-year colleges to develop STEM curriculums that reflect workforce needs. Expanding employers’ engagement with institutions that educate large populations of underrepresented students is crucial, says Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, McGuire describes finding out that Trinity Washington University, whose students are primarily low-income women of color, fell outside of Amazon’s “preferred academic group” when developing programs and employment opportunities in the region—and working to get a seat at the table.

“Too often,” she writes, “employers create closed loops of opportunity for select elite colleges and their graduates while foreclosing opportunities for other, more diverse students attending more broadly accessible colleges.” She cites research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce showing that white workers are more likely than Black and Latinx workers to have “good jobs” at every level of education.

Related: Georgetown study on ‘good jobs’ calls for expanding educational opportunity >

McGuire calls on college presidents to “confront employer biases that diminish the lifetime economic potential of our graduates” and “educate our corporate peers among CEOs and top executives—many of whom are our graduates—about the values at stake in promoting social equity.”

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