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Report: HSIs Key to Spurring Latino Movement Through STEM Pipeline

A Center for Urban Education (CUE) report argues that reversing the historic underfunding of Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) will increase the number of Latino students moving into the science and technology fields because it would lead to improved transfer pathways between community colleges and HSIs.

 The study, called “Improving Transfer Access to STEM Bachelor’s Degrees at Hispanic-Serving Institutions Through the America COMPETES Act,” found that although participation rates are increasing, Latinos were awarded just 8.2 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2007.

 “The lack of progress is quite disheartening,” said Dr. Alicia C. Dowd, author of this series of reports and co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California. “The trends are not improving at the rate we would like them to.”

 Meanwhile, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) job growth is on the rise with some estimates saying the sector will grow at nearly twice the rate as other occupations, according to the National Science Board. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic group in the country and the CUE report authors said building STEM programs at the HSIs and community colleges where the majority of these students study is an investment in the nation’s labor force.

“It’s timely given the atmosphere in Washington, where everyone is talking about the role of two-year colleges and transferring students,” said Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP).

Although HSIs graduate 40 percent of Latino undergraduates, just 20 percent of Latinos earn STEM bachelor’s degrees at HSIs , said co-author Dr. Lindsey E. Malcolm, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside.

 “This disparity can be explained in part by the fact that HSIs have been chronically underfunded in the distribution of federal STEM research dollars,” the report said, limiting these institutions’ ability to provide research and training opportunities.

 At non-HSIs, however, the numbers aren’t much better. For Latino transfer students with associate degrees, only 13.5 percent of them go on to earn a STEM four-year degree. Latino students who go straight to four-year schools, HSI or non-HSI, have much better chances at completing their degrees but there are fewer of them. Six out of 10 Latino students in this country attend a community college, some of which are HSIs.

 Of those who earned college degrees, 60 percent of Latino students at HSIs and 70 percent of those at non-HSIs majored in social and behavioral sciences, according to the report.

In their recommendations, authors advised funding agencies such as the  National Science Foundation (NSF) to target their efforts toward streamlining the transfer process and urging pedagogical innovation for teaching math to Latino students by enhancing collaboration between two- and four-year schools.

 Dowd said HSIs that receive money from the federal higher education Title V program are slated to receive increased federal aid from the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed in late March as part of the health care reform legislative package.

 But Espinosa said she is still troubled by the lack of specific details coming from NSF about supporting these institutions’ efforts to broaden STEM participation. Recent proposed policy changes would alter how NSF distributes monies, effectively pitting HSIs against other institutions for awards originally set apart for HSIs.

 Under federal guidelines, HSIs are defined as degree-granting, nonprofit institutions of higher education with 25 percent or more undergraduate full-time equivalent Hispanic enrollment. However, grantees are not required to show how those funds reach Latino students or improve their success rates.

 In the CUE report, authors recommended the NSF mandate that schools collect and examine disaggregated data on their student demographics, completion rates and progression through the STEM pipeline and gateway courses to ensure that funding accomplishes the goal of increasing Latino success in STEM fields.

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