Calls for more diversity and inclusion in higher education are often morally and politically motivated: we need to expand access to higher education for underrepresented groups so that they have equal opportunities for post-secondary degrees. These claims are important. However, the economic value of college and university diversification is often overlooked. According to McKinseys Diversity is important Report: “Top quartile racial and ethnic diversity companies are 35% more likely to achieve financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”
The need for diversity is particularly imperative in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Artificial intelligence in particular has experienced numerous failures due to the lack of diverse R&D teams: in Motion sensors, Image recognition apps, and Crime prediction software. Sustained employment growth is also expected in these areas. Unfortunately, the gap in graduate education, especially in MINT doctoral education, is appalling. A report by the Graduate Schools Council, Enrollment and degrees: 2009 to 2019, found that in engineering, math and computer science, and physics and earth sciences, Black / African American students make up less than 3% of the prospective cohorts of graduate and graduate students in the country’s largest research universities, despite being 13% of the US Make up the population. New data from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University show that at the current rate of growth for Latinx and Black engineers, it can take 76 years to achieve fair representation. We need to accelerate our progress.
But why is the access problem so ingrained? We know that there are two major barriers to increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities in higher education. The first is the ongoing challenge of equal access to and completion of bachelor’s degrees. Over the past decade we have seen successful programs addressing this problem, but here, too, our progress is far too slow. Last year Ed Trust published a report to the persistent underrepresentation in America’s most selective public colleges and universities. One of the most troubling results was that black student representation in these schools is actually worse than it was in 2000. Of the 100 schools, nearly 60% saw the number of black students enrolled decreased, with an average decrease of 2.1%.
The second and related hurdle is the lack of financial support. We have seen an increase in the number of programs to address this problem, but here too we need to step up our efforts. A recent study by my organization identified affordability concerns as a factor preventing some students, particularly those from traditionally underserved backgrounds, from accessing higher education. For example 82.2% of the enrollment management experts noticed lack of financial support as a concern for prospective domestic students since the Covid-19 pandemic. Another study by CGS focused on racially and ethnically underrepresented doctoral students, particularly at historically black colleges and universities. Of the prospective PhD students surveyed, 89% said that the availability of financial support is extremely important or very important in deciding where to apply.
If access and financial support are the biggest challenges, what steps can we take now to expand opportunities and improve the health of our workforce and economy?
Our first priority should be to recruit and engage diverse STEM talent from an early age. To do this, we need increased investment from federal and state budgets and agencies. According to a current report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, despite increases over the past eight years, state and local funding for public higher education is still 6% below 2008 levels and 14.6% below 2001 levels. By significant To make change happen, our entire education system, from pre-school to post-secondary, needs to work to establish more diversity, equity and inclusion practices. Graduate education must embody these ideals. The proposed US Innovation and Competition Act is a good step in this direction. It suggests investing in the broad recruitment of young academics through incubators and industry / research alliances. It would also create a new National Science Foundation Directorate for Technology and Innovation, as well as national technology centers.
Second, it will be vital to support increased federal research investments in HBCUs, Hispanic institutions, tribal colleges and universities, and other institutions that serve minorities. In their 184 year history, HBCUs have been consistently underinvested. A newer government accountability office report indicates that almost half of the building space on the HBCU campus needs maintenance or replacement. The lack of government support has severely affected their ability to upgrade laboratories, libraries, student centers and dormitories. We welcome the proposed increases to the recently published by President Joe Biden Budget proposal, which includes an increase in support for traditionally black colleges by $ 15 million for fiscal 2022, as well as an increase in the state’s Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program and Masters degrees at HBCUs and mostly black institutions.
Finally, we need to expand access to Pell funding for PhD students. In 2016, 35% of the master’s students were former Pell scholars not exhausted Pell support available every 12 semesters. If this needs-based help is transferred, more students will receive scholarships for master’s courses, also in public service areas that are in high demand, such as education and health care. The Law on the extension of access to higher education, recently introduced bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives, will provide students with much-needed scholarships and reduce student debt by up to $ 6,495 for each Pell-Eligible year. These are significant savings: Masters students who were former Pell recipients borrowed a median of $ 17,320 in 2015-2016. By allowing students to maximize Pell Grant awards, policy makers would also create an incentive for early completion of undergraduate degrees.
We need to invest wisely to expand the pipeline of students from diverse backgrounds well before they reach college. The university education must be prepared for the moment. Improving access to Masters and PhD degrees in STEM will not only help underrepresented minority students enjoy the economic and professional benefits of a college degree. It will help the health of the US economy and workforce – and the future of all Americans.
Suzanne T. Ortega is President of the Council of Graduate Schools.
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