STEM universities must do more to close racial gaps

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, was not Tiana Young’s first choice for college, even though Young wants to dual major in aeronautical and mechanical engineering, and the private university is one the top schools in the country for science, technology, math and engineering.

The school had one big drawback: Rensselaer’s student body is more than two-thirds white and Asian, according to federal data. For Young, who is black and whose high school in Spring Valley, New York, was almost entirely African-American and Hispanic, “the lack of diversity was a very big concern,” says the freshman.

But Young, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, needed significant financial aid to attend college, and Rensselaer made a financial offer she couldn’t refuse.

Academically, the school has been challenging but rewarding, a sentiment echoed by other African-American freshman. “I feel like I’ll leave here 1,000 times smarter and ready for any job,” says Young’s friend Charles Omoregbee, an engineering major.

While Young has made white friends in her dorm – everyone rallied to help her when a mouse scampered into her room and hid – and in the Society of Women Engineers, her closest friends are all African-American. Most white students are friendly, but small slights and one major incident have left Young and other African-American students stressed by more than just homework.

During the first month of school, a white student who is part of the alt-right group Turning Point USA created a Facebook post that called for the return of separate water fountains for whites and “Coloreds”.

Young and her African-American classmates were shaken up by the post, and equally angered by the fact that the school never publicly addressed the issue. Some even contemplated transferring. “When we got here they acted like it’s all rainbows and sprinkles at Rensselaer, but when something happens then everyone is silent,” says Jenari Mitchell, a freshman computer science major.

Students of colour studying science, technology, engineering and maths – STEM subjects – are underrepresented at schools around the country and even though most don’t face overt racism they face a set of challenges that have led to persistent issues of under-representation at the graduate levels and across STEM professions.

African-American and Latino workers comprise just 16% of the advanced manufacturing workforce, 15% of the computing workforce and 12% of the engineering workforce, rates that have remained essentially flat for more than a decade, according to the 2015 US NEWS/Raytheon STEM Index. And yet some STEM industries are already facing shortages of qualified personnel, and others project major growth in the future.

Encouraging blacks and Hispanics, both growing populations, to pursue STEM careers is both an equity issue and crucial for the economy, according to Rodney Andrews, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas. But, experts say, higher education must do more to address a set of challenges that keep blacks and Hispanics from pursuing STEM degrees.

Paying for college can be a major obstacle for black and Hispanic students, who are more likely to live in poverty than their white peers and more likely to be the first in their family to attend college. They’re also more likely to attend poorly resourced segregated public schools that lack the tough curriculum needed to prepare them for college-level STEM courses.

When they arrive on campus, college culture also makes a difference to the number of black and Hispanic students pursuing STEM degrees. Experts and students say colleges and universities, especially STEM research institutions, aren’t doing enough to ensure that students of colour don’t switch majors or drop out entirely.

According to one recent study, 37.5% of white and Asian-American students completed STEM degrees after five years, while completion rates for African-American and Latino students were 22.1% and 18.4% respectively.

“It’s no longer enough to just teach students,” says Tim Scott, assistant provost for undergraduate studies at Texas A&M University. “We need to ask, ‘What tools do we need to retain them?’”

Eugene Fiorini, a mathematics professor at Muhlenberg College who oversees a summer preparatory program, says schools don’t do enough to integrate students of colour into campus life.

“The research shows that the trouble these students have in college has nothing to do with intelligence; they don’t feel like they are part of the college and they drop out more because of cultural isolation,” he says.

For black and Latino students shifting from segregated high schools, where they rarely saw a white face, to STEM-oriented research institutions where blacks and Hispanics are a tiny percentage of the student population, the adjustment can be especially difficult. “When I got here I thought, ‘Wow, so this is what it means to be a minority,’” says Young. Rensselaer’s student population is 15% black and Hispanic this year, according to statistics provided by the school. “It was a culture shock.”

Historically black colleges and universities represent just 3% of all colleges but 27% of all STEM degrees earned by black students. Small liberal arts colleges may also be more explicitly inclusive, sources say.

Steven Hightower, whose Newark, New Jersey high school was 90% minority, chose Brandeis University to study computer science. “There’s something different about going to a liberal arts college to study STEM,” says Hightower. “It’s very community-oriented. The faculty cares for the students and wants us to believe in ourselves.”

The vibe is often the opposite at STEM-oriented universities, where black and Hispanic students tend to be more underrepresented, says Andrews, of the University of Texas. He says those institutions, in particular, need to invest more resources into making students of colour feel at home.

“One of the returns you should get for attending college is a broader social experience,” he says. “But it is a different experience for students of colour. If schools are just agnostic [not believing action needs to be taken to make minority students more comfortable] it leads to differences in performance.”

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is trying to increase the number of black and Hispanic students on campus. Jonathan Wexler, Rensselaer’s vice-president for enrolment management, says the school began setting money and resources aside four years ago for scholarships and for outreach to high schools with underrepresented populations. It also began flying minority students who had been accepted – and their families – to campus in an effort to win them over.

In 2010, 8% of Rensselaer’s students were black or Hispanic, according to federal data. In 2015, the number rose to 11%. Preliminary federal data shows black and Hispanic enrolment rose to 12% last year; according to Rensselaer’s internal data, the number of underrepresented minorities was 16.1%.

Even with an increase in their numbers on campus, minority students often feel like strangers in a strange land. One problem is that schools often “conflate diversity with inclusion”, according to Andrea Brenner, director of the new American University Experience first-year programme at Washington DC-based American University.

The mandatory year-long programme was created to provide freshman general information about college life and the resources available to them, and also to teach “about inequality in America and how it plays out on college campuses,” Brenner says. The AU Experience classes can “pause the curriculum” to focus on racial incidents, Brenner adds, whether they happen at school or nationally.

Without instruction and resources like those offered at AU, minority students on many campuses turn to outside organisations, like the National Society of Black Engineers, for guidance and some friendly faces.

Rohan Cherian-Ashe, a Rensselaer junior, praises the NSBE but says schools are sometimes too willing to let these organisations do their work for them.

“I think the school should be doing what the NSBE is doing, pairing minority freshmen with upperclassmen from the same programme.”

Mitchell says if Rensselaer had emphasised inclusiveness and the subtle and often unintended acts of discrimination, known as “micro-aggressions,” in its orientation for all students, then perhaps the Facebook incident would not have happened.

Numerous studies have shown that the combination of a more welcoming culture and supportive networks of peers and older students, in tandem with tutoring and financial aid, helps improve retention of underrepresented minorities in STEM. Sara Garcia, research associate at the Center for American Progress, says progress in creating this environment is uneven, but, she adds, “We are seeing more momentum.”

Last year, Texas A&M introduced the Science Leadership Scholarship or SLS, which provides a stipend of $3,000 per year to 25 students. The race-neutral scholarship targets first-generation and low-income students, most of whom are members of underrepresented minority groups.

The scholarship does more than just provide money; it also builds in resources and networking for students. Students meet twice monthly with an advisor and twice monthly as a group for presentations on topics ranging from sexual issues to money management to current events like President Trump’s anti-immigrant policy statements. The one-on-one meetings are “like a check-up,” says freshman Sergio Estrada, whose parents did not graduate high school.

Sophomore Saron Gilazgi, whose parents were Eritrean war refugees, was in the first SLS cohort. She says minorities often arrive “with doubts about whether we belong. This programme instils self-worth.” The group sessions were the most influential part of the programme, she said, because “it is so comforting knowing we are not alone.”

The programme is, however, just a drop in the bucket, at a school where just 3.7% of students are African-American and 20.5% are Hispanic, far below the percentage living in Texas. Still, the main campus of Texas A&M in College Station, has made impressive and steady progress in increasing diversity: In 2002, just 12% of its students were underrepresented minorities and that figure has climbed to roughly 27% this year.

Gilazgi only wishes the SLS programme could expand. Estrada says freshman friends he made outside of SLS felt lost on campus and were unaware of the resources the school offered, information he learned through the programme. Scott, the assistant provost, says scaling up the Science Leadership Scholarship would require significant outside funding. He hopes, instead, that sustained success by SLS students will provide data the school can use to convince other students to seek resources, from scholarships to on-campus tutoring, early.

The need to better educate students about the resources available to them on campus is a recurring theme at colleges across the country.

Young, who is taking chemistry, calculus, economics and an introductory class in industrial analysis, felt everything was on track after her first round of tests, but the academic pace soon accelerated and the work became harder.

“I was confident, then everything went downhill,” she says. She discovered that Rensselaer offers plenty of extra help and now regularly attends tutoring sessions. She says she learned about these programmes from other students, not from the school. Many of her classmates also knew nothing about these programmes, she adds.

Students at Georgia Institute of Technology are also frequently in ignorance of the assistance available to them, even though the school has an established programme aimed at students of colour. Freshman Keandre Williams says he only learned about his school’s Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED) “coincidentally” by overhearing a conversation.

“They should boost the amount of people that know about these resources,” Williams says, adding that the tutoring and mentoring he has received through OMED has been invaluable.

Georgia Tech provost Rafael Bras expressed surprise, saying, “OMED is quite visible, the building is centrally located on campus and well-labelled,” he says. (He added he would explore ways to ensure students know about the department.)

Freshman Williams says his group of friends is large and racially mixed, but he has seen other black friends become isolated. Bras says Georgia Tech, a public institution, has a “large number” of minority students.

“[C]ompared to most schools in the nation we are way up there. If you look around it is not an issue. We are an incredibly diverse institution,” he adds.

The school has been labeled an “engine of inequality” by College Results Online, a project of the Education Trust, a Washington DC-based think tank, because of the low number of low-income students it admits. The percentage of Georgia Tech’s students who are black and Hispanic was 14% in the fall of 2016, according to federal data. It was 11% in 2010.

Williams says some of his African-American classmates feel “a tension, an alienation. Pushing integration should be a bigger goal for the school — if my friend feels, ‘I don’t have a place on campus,’ that will lead to bigger problems.”

That sense of alienation is also an issue at Rensselaer Polytechnic. While the Student Union has a “Brave Space” for student discussions, a group of African-American freshmen interviewed for this article want the entire university to deal with racial issues. Freshman Kendrick Turner says the problem is often simply “racial ignorance,” but the months-long silence regarding the offensive Facebook post, with its call for a return to Jim Crow, has been particularly upsetting.

“The administration said they were investigating, but nothing has happened,” Young says.

Omoregbee doesn’t expect the school to solve racism; he just needs to believe the school wants minority students to feel included in the larger community.

“I’m not looking for some huge revolution. I just want somebody to care,” he said. (At American University, when Confederate flag posters appeared on campus, the school immediately scheduled a town hall at which the university president spoke.)

Rensselaer vice-president of student life LeNorman Strong, who is black, says the school continues to investigate the Facebook incident. “There is a lack of multicultural sophistication here,” says Strong, who joined Rensselaer this summer. “There is an over-sensitivity on one side or political correctness, and on the other side are students who, through attempts to be humorous, make some really dreadful errors. Young people are going to do things like that.”

He added that an assistant dean was available to discuss the situation with a group of African-American students who had attempted to raise the issue at a Turning Point meeting earlier in the semester. (Mitchell, who was at the meeting, says the white students were dismissive of their concerns and called the post a joke.)

Asked about the concerns expressed by Young and her friends, Strong says that if “the situation is beginning to take on life of its own, maybe we do need to do something more formal and more broad. I will reach out to see what we can do.”

Strong says Rensselaer is taking steps to make all students feel welcome, including a new “bias-incident response programme” to streamline the process for students reporting problems. The school is also creating two brand-new administrative roles: assistant dean of student success for underrepresented minorities and director of multicultural programmes.

“We want to build new programmes,” he says. “Other schools have comprehensive diversity education programmes and Rensselaer is ready to have that kind of initiative here.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news organisation focused on inequality and innovation in education.