Are Colleges to Blame for the Lack of STEM Degrees Earned by African Americans?

Christine Beaubrun isn’t your typical software engineer. For starters, she’s female and, on top of that, she’s African American, two things vastly underrepresented in science and technology fields. Despite the odds, she turned her love of art and interest in technology into a software engineering career at Intel Corp. But she doesn’t have her college to thank. In fact, her initial experience with computer science at all-female Smith College led her to graduate with a bachelor’s in art.

“The professors have been programming since they were 12 but because I had never programmed before this intro course and I struggled, I was made to feel as though I shouldn’t pursue computer science,” says Beaubrun of her experience with an introductory computer science course.  “I was in a women’s college and… discouraged to pursue computer science. I never took it again.”

Minorities don’t get the exposure to survive intro STEM courses

Beaubrun isn’t alone in her negative experience when taking an introductory STEM class. Some critics suggest one of the reasons African-American students aren’t graduating with STEM degrees is because they don’t have the support to overcome challenging course work that they weren’t exposed to in high school. It’s also one of the reasons many don’t continue to choose these STEM degrees to begin with.

“Professors are the ones that have to mentor and guide students through introductory science courses,” says Nyote Calixte, Director of Academic Engagement, Natural and Quantitative Sciences at Duke University. “If Professors tailor introductory courses only to a subset of students, one could ask the question, what happens to students at the margins? Underrepresented students occasionally do encounter these issues and it can hinder their persistence in STEM.”

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, African Americans are overrepresented in lower-paying majors and aren’t pursuing the degrees that can earn them a high income like in STEM. Just seven percent of STEM majors in the survey were African-American. While African Americans accounted for ten percent of the health degrees they were skewed toward health and medical administrative services, the lowest paying health fields.

STEM degrees are inherently harder than a lot of the other degrees and do require a foundation in math and science. There also has to be a connection between learning and making a living and that is often missing at the high school level for minorities. “It comes down to a lack of resources and lack of role models of people that are relatable to them and can show them what the path forward may be,” says Crystal Moore, ‎senior director of corporate development at Fullbridge, which provides workplace courses designed to bridge the skills gap.

For Beaubrun, it wasn’t until after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art that she decided to pursue graphic design. After researching HTML and learning how the Web worked on her own, it snowballed from there, with Beaubrun ending up at Flatiron School, which offers intensive coding boot camp courses.

“I never intentionally pursued STEM,” says Beaubrun. “At the time, I was making a career switch, it never occurred to me that I was getting closer and closer to a career in STEM.” Had Beaubrun gotten the support from her college when she first stumbled into the introduction to computer science course, she may have received the necessary training while earning her bachelor’s degree, instead of having to attend a coding school after graduation.

That discouragement on the part of minority students is one of the reasons the National Action Council For Minorities In Engineering, Inc. (NACME), which awards minorities scholarships to pursue an engineering degree, works with partner institutions that have the supports in place for minority students to succeed, such as summer bridge programs, mentoring opportunities, or campus study groups, says Chris Smith, NACME’s director for Scholarships, University Relations, and Research. It’s one of the reasons 79 percent of its scholars graduate with an engineering degree after six years.

“Minorities aren’t getting the exposure and training they need,” says Smith. “There is a huge divide in terms of the preparedness (to take STEM courses) for underrepresented groups.”

Lack of diversity in STEM could hurt future innovation

Beaubrun was able to buck the trend and now enjoys a software engineering career, but she is far from the norm, which will have long-term implications for individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Take wealth building for starters. If African Americans continue to lean toward those lower paying degrees, it will continue to create income inequality in communities around the country. On an individual level, many of these students are shackled with thousands of dollars in student loans that is going to further put pressure on them and the local economy.

From a societal perspective, without more African Americans in STEM, it’s going to hurt innovation. “Science is really able to advance through diversity and if students of color are underrepresented, they can’t bring their wealth of knowledge and experiences to the area of science,” says Calixte of Duke University. “A diversity of ideas and experiences is how to advance science and technology.”

Introductory STEM courses, employer mindsets need to be overhauled

So what can be done? Calixte advocates an overhaul of the introductory STEM classes so that there isn’t this unrealistic expectation that students already have a deep understanding of math and science. Instead, it should be taught to a variety of experience levels so students aren’t discouraged from a STEM degree early on, says Calixte.

Moore of Fullbridge says there also has to be change in the mindset of employers who aren’t hiring minority STEM graduates because they may not possess the same skills and experience as their white male counterparts. “One thing we have to think about is how we get employers to look at the skill set of African Americans and minorities differently,” says Moore. “Their academic experience may look different than White and Asian men and getting employers to think about the backgrounds differently creates better pathways to STEM in corporate America and Silicon Valley.”