Breaking Institutional Underrepresentation of Black and Latinx Youth in STEM

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The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are among the fastest-growing work areas in the United States. However, racial, ethnic, and gender disparities maintain STEM spaces as exclusive settings.

This may not be unique to STEM majors, but it is particularly pronounced compared to other majors. In fact, a 2019 study published in the journal Education Researcher revealed evidence of persistent racial/ethnic inequality in STEM degree attainment not found in other fields.

The authors discovered that higher switching rates for minority students relative to White students are a pattern that is indeed specific to STEM fields. Their results also indicated that, despite many national studies showing that Black and Latinx students are as likely to enter STEM majors as their White peers, they leave STEM majors at nearly twice the White students’ rate.

The research took social background and inequality in high school academic preparation into account when analyzing the causes of such disparities. They included parental education measures, family income, place of birth (U.S. vs. not), gender, age, and whether students worked full-time or part-time (vs. not).

Part of these data explained the underrepresentation of Black and Latinx youth in STEM education. So, now that some of the causes are clear, it is time to find solutions. How can institutions of higher learning address and close this racial/ethnic gap? 

Deliver mandatory cultural competency training for staff and faculty

Many faculty and staff at colleges and universities might think that the playing field is equal for all their students by arriving at the same place. Still, not all students come to their undergraduate experiences with the same resources. Black and Latinx students know that these assumptions are not only false but harmful. Their personal experiences are more than enough to understand that how they’ve arrived at these institutions is essential, but there is also plenty of research to support this. 

Culture-responsive education translates into fewer microaggressions, which is a contributing factor to disparities in STEM fields. Effective cultural competency training would mean that staff and faculty are aware of their own cultural worldview and attitude towards cultural differences and expand their knowledge of different cultural practices and cross-cultural skills.

Hire more first-generation, Black, and Latinx faculty

Black and Latinx students need to see themselves reflected in positions of power, which is especially true for their professors. The lack of representation among faculty could lead to increased feelings of exclusion for students. Having someone who can better empathize with their contexts eases the road and allows for effective communication.

It is also unfair to put all pressure on a handful of first-generation, Black, and Latinx faculty members to mentor hundreds of students. The more first-generation, Black, and Latinx professors hired, the less tokenized and overworked they will be.

Provide financial support for low-income Black and Latinx students

Leveling the playing field is not only about academic preparation; it is also about time and resources. For low-income Black and Latinx students, helping their families financially often comes first –– even before their education. By providing financial support, institutions would allow them to focus primarily on their classes. 

Offer academic advising for Black and Latinx students

Clearly, the numbers show disparities in the attainment of STEM degrees between White and Black/Latinx students across several universities. As such, interventions created to combat these disparities should focus on providing academic advising specific to Black and Latinx students from a lens of cultural understanding.

Create peer and faculty/staff mentorship programs among Black and Latinx students

The majority of first-generation students, many of whom are Black and Latinx, do not arrive at their universities with a pre-established network that they inherited from their parents. Students whose parents have degrees, especially advanced degrees, have access to a whole body of knowledge that is not just content-based but also about navigating these institutions. First-generation students may not arrive with knowledge on how to navigate several aspects of their universities, let alone understand how to begin a STEM career.

Higher learning institutions need to invest in programs that focus on creating networks for their marginalized students who may not bring with them a network of folks that was handed down to them. They should focus on helping students connect with professors, alumni, staff, peers, and other people who can provide academic and professional guidance.