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Why a Focus on Minority Men Means a Focus on the Whole

As some may recall, an early blog post featured data and opinion on the state of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) undergraduate degree completion for women of color (including top degree-granting institutions). Although much of my work has addressed the experience of women and women of color in STEM, as a gender and diversity scholar, I feel it is my responsibility to recognize the other side of this proverbial coin: the lived experience of men of color in STEM.

As with all historically underserved student populations, the educational advancement of minority men is both an access and success issue; the status of minority men in K-12 and undergraduate education is alarming. In large urban centers such as New York City, Houston, Oakland, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Columbus, minority men are graduating high school at rates below 50 percent. And although the high school graduation rate between White and Black men has narrowed over the past 50 years, the college completion gap has widened.

While many researchers and practitioners have long recognized the dire status of minority men in higher education, there is a renewed focus on men of color by broad-based organizations such as the College Board, Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, and the Center for American Promise.

Scholars such as Victor Saenz (University of Texas, Austin), Robert Teranishi (New York University), and Lee Bitsoi (Harvard University) are actively addressing the sociocultural and systemic challenges that face young men of color from distinct racial and ethnic backgrounds. Challenges include discrimination, disrupted racial identity, lack of peer and community support, low expectations from meaningful adults, a virtual absence of academic role models, and a strong inter-ethnic stigma attached to excelling in the classroom.

Campuses are responding in kind to quell the trend of dwindling minority male populations. Houston Community College’s Minority Male Initiative is one such example that further draws on community voice and involvement.

Appropriately, there is also a growing community of academic and policy scholars addressing the underrepresentation of minority men in STEM fields, including organizations such as Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) out of Washington, D.C., and led by Dr. Shirley McBay.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), QEM recently hosted a series of workshops on Black, Hispanic, and Native American men in STEM featuring scholars such as Terrell Strayhorn (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and Karl Reid (United Negro College Fund) who are further questioning the presence of minority men in STEM education and careers.

The numbers are far from encouraging. According to NSF data, in 2006, Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans made up just 5, 6, and less than 1 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees granted to men, respectively. Although NSF does not break out ethnic subgroup data within their Asian/Pacific Islander category, the heterogeneity of this group—and the high poverty levels found within many Southeast Asian communities—means there is no single narrative of STEM completion for Asian American and Pacific Islander students.

Even at the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), where there exists an exceptionally supportive culture of Black educational achievement, the entry of Black men in STEM is proportionally higher than that of Black women (60 percent and 40 percent, respectively), yet more Black women actually achieve the bachelor’s of science degree.

I report these trends in an effort to prompt readers to think about the equity of both minority women and men in STEM education. Focusing on one group should not be seen as an action that comes at the expense of another.

The message to college and university faculty and student affairs staff is this: Take each student into account as individuals made up of independent backgrounds, histories, and lived experiences; both positive and challenging. This also means that STEM curricula and pedagogy should take diverse student perspectives into account, as well as support services that target student subgroups in meaningful ways.

And while the challenges facing minority men and women are often more unique than they are similar, we know that both groups face serious challenges once enrolled in college and are thus more likely to leave STEM majors if not leave college all together. As such, it is no longer enough to simply enroll first-year STEM aspirants.

As the education community has said again and again—an emphasis on college access at the expense of attainment is a faulty proposition. Taking this argument a step further, educators are right to focus on helping students succeed in meeting the goals they have set out for themselves; in this case, a STEM bachelor’s of science degree with the encouragement and support to pursue graduate or professional study.

The leaks in the STEM pipeline by both genders further calls for collaborative action on the part of K-12 and higher education, particularly at the local level. Only through the alignment of curricular expectations—by high schools and by colleges—will students succeed in meeting the academic demands set forth by postsecondary STEM departments.

Synergy between practice and research is also critical as practitioners identify challenges faced by students once on campus, which in turn informs education research that seeks depth in measurement and cohesive approaches for effective practice. Hence the continued need for disaggregated data at all stages of the education pipeline and the alignment between K-12 and higher education.

While education is a fundamental right borne to the American people, it cannot be an enterprise of massification. Higher education is not “one size fits all” for minority groups or academic major. If this is not widely recognized, we will continue to see minority men—and indeed other gender, racial/ethnic, and socioeconomic subgroups—continue to not only fall behind but remain behind.

Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is 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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