Reframing Risk: How (and Why) to Diversify Your STEM Enrollments

For those of us charged with meeting our institutions’ ever ambitious enrollment goals, risk is part of the job. Institutional revenue, retention, and reputation are all at stake. The pandemic has made this work even more challenging due to educational, financial, and health-related disruptions for students, families and college communities.  In addition, events of the past year have exacerbated longstanding racial, economic, and gender inequities.  These developments will have a negative impact on our efforts to diversify student enrollments across the board but most especially in the STEM disciplines.  Without swift and systemic interventions, we are at risk of falling even further behind in terms of STEM degree production, particularly among underrepresented populations.

Enrollment trends in STEM have been a source of frustration for educators aiming to broaden access. Despite investments in pipeline programs, increased access to upper-level math and science classes in secondary schools and the growing popularity of STEM careers, little progress has been made. Women and students of color are still woefully underrepresented, particularly in computing, the physical sciences and engineering.  Data published by the Pew Research Center shows that while women comprise more than half of the college-going population, they received just 19% of the degrees awarded in Computer Science and 21% of the degrees awarded in engineering.  Black students earned only 7% of STEM degrees. Even more concerning, the percentage of Black women earning engineering degrees between 2000 and 2017 actually declined by 30%.  Where have we gone wrong? Dr. Kristin R. TichenorDr. Kristin R. Tichenor

Cynics would argue that the academy doesn’t really want to diversify STEM enrollments.  Our very definition of academic merit is rife with implicit bias and systemic racism.  Everything from access to summer enrichment programs and standardized test scores to the availability of honors courses and the likelihood of getting a glowing recommendation letter can be correlated with socioeconomic status.  The pandemic has made these inequities even more glaring given the disproportionate impact that remote learning has had on low-income students. 

These inherently biased admissions practices are especially problematic for underrepresented students with an interest in STEM majors.  Applicants to STEM degree programs are expected to meet higher standards than those for non-STEM majors, making it that much harder for marginalized populations to gain entry.  The rationale is that certain fields of study are too rigorous for individuals with sub-par scores or grades to succeed.  The irony is that students of color, first generation students and students from low income homes tend to enroll at less selective, less resourced colleges and universities than their more advantaged peers.  An issue brief published by the Center for American Progress noted that Black and Hispanic students in particular are more likely to receive post-secondary credentials from schools that spend less money on their students, have lower student to faculty ratios and lower retention rates. As faculty member David Kirp noted in his Washington Post article about the University of California Berkeley’s decision to go test-blind, the lack of support services at less resourced institutions puts disadvantaged students at far greater risk of failure than if they were enrolled in degree programs at more selective institutions. 

Why do we have a vested interest in broadening access to STEM degree programs?  First, careers in computer science, mathematics and engineering pay more, have lower rates of unemployment and higher projected growth rates than other fields.  Students of all backgrounds deserve the chance to pursue these lucrative career paths.  Second, the United States is lagging in its production of STEM degrees in comparison with other advanced economies.  That compromises our ability to meet the technology demands of the future and puts the nation at a competitive disadvantage.  It also presents a potential national security risk.  Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology projects that by 2025, China will produce twice the number of STEM PhD graduates as the US.  Third, teams comprised of individuals from different backgrounds are more likely to produce creative solutions than homogenous teams.  To solve the problems facing our communities, our nation, and the world, we need all the brainpower we can get.  

Daunting as this task may seem, the good news is that there are concrete steps that we can take to address the race, gender and income disparities in our STEM programs.  Here are five first steps to consider:   

1.     Start early: Offer STEM exploration programs to pre-college students.  Early exposure helps to build interest and confidence, especially among students who have been historically underrepresented in science and engineering.  

2.     Partner with secondary schools: Collaborate with colleagues at local schools to offer STEM programming for faculty, students, parents and staff.  Potential topics include what it takes to succeed in STEM, how to prepare for STEM studies in college and how implicit bias deters students from pursuing science and engineering majors in college.

3.     Identify barriers: Curtail admissions practices that perpetuate privilege, including differentiated criteria for STEM majors. Conduct focus groups with current students to identify pain points and mitigation strategies at point of entry and post-matriculation. 

4.     Offer academic on ramps: Introductory courses in STEM majors were historically used to weed out students who were not deemed worthy.  “Weed out” courses undermine students with the talent and drive to succeed but who may have attended less competitive high schools. Note: Academic gaps are likely to be even more prevalent now than ever before due to the pandemic.  Offer online modules or academic review sessions to help incoming students get up to speed quickly.

5.     Show and Tell: Ask current students to share their struggles and strategies for success. These stories can be used to convey the message that failure is part of the learning process.  Spotlight diverse faculty and alumni. Providing diverse role models can build confidence among underrepresented students predisposed to doubt themselves.  

The good news and the bad news is that we have the power to change the status quo. If we are truly committed to broadening access to science and engineering studies and careers, there are changes we can make within our respective spheres of influence that will have a net positive impact.  Lamenting the lack of diversity in STEM is not an option.  We will continue putting our students, our economy and our nation at risk by our inability – or unwillingness -- to actively address the race, gender and income disparities in our STEM enrollments.   Our call to action? Step away from enrollment practices that are steeped in the scarcity mindset, practices that measure success based on who we exclude rather than who we include.  To meet the demands of the future, we need a new paradigm for determining who has the potential to succeed in STEM.  That is a risk worth taking.  

Dr. Kristin R. Tichenor is vice president of enrollment at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA.  

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