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Scholars Blame Low Minority Retention in STEM on Affirmative Action

Minority students are leaving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines in disproportionate numbers before graduating, because affirmative action may be placing students in rigorous academic settings for which they are not prepared, a panel of scholars told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday.

Some scholars told the commission, which is charged with monitoring federal civil rights enforcement, the system of “mismatching” may hurt minority students in STEM who are induced to attend selective schools.

In 1990, underrepresented minorities received 10 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the sciences and engineering. By 2004, underrepresented minorities constituted 17.2 percent of students awarded science and engineering degrees, according to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology.

Despite these gains, Black, Hispanic, South East Asian and American Indian students continue to be less likely to complete degrees in agricultural sciences, engineering and physical sciences, when compared to their counterparts in all science and engineering fields.

National graduation data for STEM majors reveal that by the sixth year of college, only about 29 percent of minority students majoring in a STEM field graduate compared to about 40 percent of all students entering STEM majors.

During this same briefing, scholars repudiated the praise historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions are enjoying for graduating a significant number of minority students in the STEM disciplines stating: Black colleges graduate Blacks in STEM as a result of their demographics, and doctoral degrees from these institutions are less competitive.

HBCUs produce a significant number of students who go on to earn doctoral degrees in STEM, according to a recent National Science Foundation report. The percentage of science and engineering doctoral degree recipients who earned undergraduate degrees from HBCUs ranged between 24 and 33 percent from 1986 to 2006. The top five baccalaureate-origin institutions of Black science and engineering doctoral recipients were Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton University, Florida A&M University and Morehouse College.

MSI graduates can perform in the private sector in their respective STEM fields, said Dr. Richard Tapia, the Maxfield Oshman professor in engineering at Rice University, but it is unlikely that Ph.D.s produced at minority-serving schools or less prestigious schools will become faculty at top research universities.

“Top research universities choose faculty from Ph.D.s produced at top research universities. That’s simple,” said Tapia. “Ph.D.s produced at minority-serving schools will not become faculty at top research universities.”

As a solution Tapia recommended that elite institutions provide proven retention mechanisms and support services to ensure minority success in STEM, rather than pipelining students of color from less rigorous institutions. “The proper form of affirmative action is to evaluate the evaluation criteria [of admissions]. It’s not that the bad students are accepted. It’s that good students are excluded,” Tapia said.

The Meyerhoff scholars program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has been able to retain talented minority students majoring in STEM. Meyerhoff is a six-week program of science and math courses the summer prior to matriculation. The program cultivates a cohort of Black students that participate in group housing and group studying. The participants are linked with professional mentors and are provided with summer internships. Launched in 1988 in response to an alarming lack of Black men pursuing STEM degrees, the Meyerhoff program has helped fund roughly 200 STEM degrees for Black males and other minorities.

To illustrate the impact of “mismatching” in the disciplines of STEM, Dr. Richard Sander, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, compared the graduation rates of undergraduate students who planned to major in science and engineering at the most competitive UC campuses to the less rigorous campuses.

Among students who entered the system from 1992 to 1994, only 5 percent of underrepresented minorities who said they wanted to study science and engineering at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, the most competitive universities in the system, persisted through graduation in those fields, Sander said, citing unpublished research he is working on. “At other [less competitive] campuses the rates are dramatically higher. Some schools are twice the rate of UCLA and UCB,” said Sander. “These things show that there is compelling evidence that there really is a mismatch.”

Data show the largest disparities among underrepresented minorities in STEM occur at the most elite institutions that rely on high SAT scores, said Dr. Rogers Elliot, professor emeritus of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College. “They [elite universities] have very high levels in their admission standards; levels which minorities, especially Blacks, don’t come close to meeting.”

Students should be matched to the context in which they can compete. “They do better,” Elliot said.

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