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A Reflection on the Need for Achievement-Minded Approaches to Diversifying STEM

I was pleased to read fellow-blogger Marybeth Gasman’s most recent piece on the misrepresentation of Blacks in American history texts and classrooms. Like Dr. Gasman, I too have pondered the portrayal of Black students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as the research approach taken by social scientists who study diverse populations in postsecondary STEM education.

In her blog entry, Dr. Gasman points to Dr. James D. Anderson’s book, The Education of Blacks in the South, which depicts Blacks as leaders and shapers of society as opposed to victims of racism and oppression. My own reflection has me thinking about the way culture, diversity and difference is taught to our youth; it is indeed no wonder that many adults isolate underrepresented groups as necessitating a pejorative lens. 

Such a lens not only means that Blacks are portrayed as victims. It also means that only a select few Black scientists are heralded as pioneers. As a recent NPR story reminded me, it is still the case that social institutions (like schools) point to individual Black inventors, activists and peacekeepers as representatives of a race instead of representatives of a movement.

While it is certainly important to recognize prominent and influential historical figures, mainstream education nonetheless fails to construct Black history as a movement of people who faced great struggle on a day-to-day basis and who held up and supported individual historical figures in ways you or I can only begin to imagine.

Much of the empirical research on women, racial/ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities and other underrepresented populations follows this same line of deficit thinking in that scholars have mostly focused on the barriers that students face in pursuit of STEM degrees and credentials. While it is certainly necessary to first identify the challenges experienced by students before prescribing practical interventions, it is of equal importance to identify the strengths and successes of diverse students in STEM.

A recent volume of New Directions for Institutional Research, Students of Color in STEM, is a good example of social scientists examining the successful experiences of minorities pursuing scientific fields. The volume’s editors (Shawn Harper of the University of Pennsylvania and Christopher Newman of the University of California, Los Angeles) express the need for research that counterbalances deficit-oriented perspectives with achievement-focused ones.

Such a call to action seems simple enough: Examine those practices that have the potential to promote undergraduate learning and persistence in STEM, make necessary modifications where needed, and continue to monitor progress via program assessment and other forms of evaluation.

While this may be overly simplistic, the relationship between research and practice is mostly clear. A relationship between research, practice and policy also comes to light: Utilize education policy to support the scaling up of successful and promising practices, provide monetary support and other resources for ongoing assessment and identify opportunities to align such efforts with new and existing policies and funding streams.

As objective as this seems, it is of course not entirely realistic given the very subjective world we live in. In a piece on closing the achievement gap in higher education, Professor Estela Bensimon of the University of Southern California points to the propensity of campus personnel to complain that “minority students” don’t use the academic services made available to them on campus. Or, the expectation that students from low-income and underprepared backgrounds are prone to failure — or at the very least, unequal outcomes — when compared to more affluent and prepared students.

If college campuses are microcosms of a larger, educated society — as we often observe them to be — then it is no surprise that this sort of deficit-minded thinking is alive and well within national and state policy circles.

An example of deficit-minded thinking in this setting plays out when members of the policy community misread national postsecondary completion goals. I have unfortunately been witness to discussions that construct completion as a hierarchy, with one-year credentials and two-year degrees at the bottom and four-year degrees (followed by master’s and doctorates) at the top. 

When the need to engage low-income and minority populations in the completion agenda arises, students from these communities are often placed at the bottom of this hierarchy; presumably the future recipients of short-term credentials and associate’s degrees, but not of something more.

This line of thought is not only deficient, it is exceedingly dangerous. Dangerous because it places us on the verge of a next generation of tracking; guiding, whether unconsciously or not, our students into fields and careers because of the color of their skin, the language they speak at home or the occupations of their parents.

America’s current system of higher education in general, and STEM fields in particular, will only grow more stratified if we do not actively build and sustain pathways for underrepresented student populations to both access, and what is more, succeed in postsecondary education.

We must next ensure that all educational options are open to all students: We cannot track our minority youth away from math and science in the middle school years in the same way that we cannot track students as they approach postsecondary options.

Finally, as we live and write our nation’s history of advancement in STEM fields, let us not teach singular examples of success to our students. Instead, let us create and support a collective movement that resembles the thriving of an entire people. This legacy starts today and it starts with higher education policy and practice that focuses on replicating the achievement of diverse students in STEM.


—      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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