Tuesday, April 4, 2006
Study Blames Obstacles, Not Lack of Interest, for Shortage of Black and Hispanic Scientists
By PETER SCHMIDT
Black and Hispanic students are about as likely as their white and Asian-American peers to enter college interested in majoring in the "STEM" fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- but many seem to eventually run into problems that keep them from earning their degrees on time, according to a study released on Monday by the American Council on Education.
The study "seems to dispel the commonly held belief that African-American and Hispanic students aren't interested in STEM fields," Eugene L. Anderson, the associate director of the council's Center for Policy Analysis and a co-author of the report, said in a written statement. What is happening instead, the report concludes, is that many such minority students have trouble earning credits at a pace that will enable them to complete college within six years, mainly as a result of inadequate preparation for college and of having to work long hours outside class.
The report, "Increasing the Success of Minority Students in Science and Technology," is based on a longitudinal study in which the U.S. Department of Education collected data on 12,000 students who began college in the fall of 1995 and then tracked their progress over six years. The initial sampling of entering freshmen found that 22.7 percent of Hispanic and 18.6 percent of black students entered college interested in the STEM fields, compared to 26.4 percent of Asian-American students and 18 percent of white students.
The ACE analysis says the results of follow-up interviews conducted more than two years later, in the spring of 1998, refute the common belief that black and Hispanic students are disproportionately unable to get through the tough "weed-out" courses that STEM-discipline majors encounter when entering their fields. The share of both black and Hispanic students who had stuck it out to that point -- 56 percent -- was only slightly smaller than the 57 percent of white and Asian-American students who remained.
Where the black and Hispanic students seemed to run into trouble was after their third year. By the spring of 2001, the end of their sixth year of college, just 62.5 percent of those who had still been in STEM fields as of 1998 had obtained degrees in those areas, compared with 94.8 percent of Asian-American and 86.7 percent of white students who had remained in those fields as of 1998.
The ACE researchers said there were not enough students in the sample to make in-depth race-based comparisons of the educational experiences of those who completed their degrees in six years and those who failed to do so. But, in comparing the total population of students who completed STEM-field degree programs on time with those who failed to do so, the study found that:
Good preparation helped. Nearly 42 percent of those who earned a degree in a STEM discipline on time had taken a highly rigorous curriculum in high school, compared with just 18 percent of those who did not finish on time.
Starting early helped, too. Nearly 98 percent of those who completed STEM-field degrees within six years had entered college before they turned 19, compared with about 84 percent of those who failed to earn such degrees on time.
Family background was important. More than 64 percent of those who completed such degrees had at least one parent with at least a bachelor's degree, and 47 percent came from families with income levels in the top third nationally. Of the students who failed to earn their degrees on time, 38 percent had at least one parent with at least a bachelor's degree, and 28 percent came from the wealthiest third.
Money mattered. Of the students who graduated on time, 38.5 percent had received financial-aid grants exceeding $5,000 as freshmen, and 27.1 percent had worked more than 15 hours per week. In contrast, just 7.6 percent of the students who failed to obtain STEM-field degrees on time had received financial-aid grants of $5,000 or more as freshmen, and 42.6 percent had worked more than 15 hours a week.
Copies of the report can be ordered for $22 (plus $6.95 shipping and handling) from the ACE Fulfillment Service, Department 191, Washington, D.C. 20055-1091, or by calling (301) 632-6757.
Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education