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STEM Diversity Without Borders

In terms of postsecondary degree completion, the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) landscape largely resembles American higher education on the whole. Despite more low-income students and underrepresented minorities seeking and completing STEM degrees, there remains great inequity between these groups and the country’s majority middle- and upper-income populations.

In addition to racial/ethnic and socioeconomic classification, the dividing lines of inequity can also be drawn by geographical region.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program sheds comprehensive light on the current condition of America’s population centers by way of immigration, migration, households, and workforce (in addition to more traditional measures like race/ethnicity).  

Although not addressing the STEM education pipeline in particular, State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation, speaks to social, educational, and industry settings in cities across the country—regions also home to potential generations of diverse STEM professionals. The report both confirms often discussed data on growing population centers while also pulling back the curtain on areas that lie beyond the country’s borders and inner-cities.

According to the report, the greatest growth of Asian and Hispanic groups—the fastest growing racial/ethnic populations—between the years 2000 and 2008 occurred in just 10 metropolitan areas. These groups are also moving away from previous geographical strongholds and into metropolitan suburbs in unprecedented numbers.

In short, the country’s populace landscape continues to change, thus necessitating a parallel change in the way researchers, policymakers, and practitioners approach STEM education and workforce advancement. Particularly when it concerns just where and when diverse students enter STEM higher education.

Fortunately, positive change is occurring at the local level. Federal agencies and philanthropies that focus on K-20 STEM outreach often utilize a community-based model. Such efforts focus on high-need school districts where science laboratories are in dire shape or are non-existent and where a lack of STEM role models is great. Such endeavors foster linkages between two- and four-year institutions, supported by both local industry and community leadership.

The bottom line is this: STEM education policy needs to move beyond a single system or institution. A collective effort—between two- and four-year institutions, public and private, and K-12 and postsecondary education—will create the change that single-approach solutions fail to assemble. This collaboration must also occur in conjunction with local industries and within metropolitan spaces.

And like metropolitan spaces—and indeed like the STEM pipeline itself—we cannot allow policy solutions to take action within state borders alone or within any one geographical or institutional setting.

 Given the role of education research in policy shaping, there must also be a more concerted effort on behalf of the higher education research community to think beyond the input categories of race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. After all, the families, neighborhoods, and schools from which the nation’s children are borne and educated have paramount influence on their education trajectory.

Such highly nuanced environments are difficult to measure, often resulting in their exclusion from national datasets and subsequent studies. When these contexts are taken into account—particularly when mixed methods are utilized—findings are overshadowed by the dominant discourse on race and income.

As such, the diversity discourse needs to be broadened. This means posing 21st century questions and designing and utilizing data that capture student movement across geographical and institutional borders. It also means inserting effective education policy at the intersections of research and practice as well as the intersections of other social systems. Only then will we facilitate the change we seek at the speed we require.

 Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the 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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