May 24, 2020
Next Steps for Diversifying STEM
At this point, there’s no question that we have to bring more diversity to STEM and healthcare. A greater diversity of voices and perspectives has the potential to enhance the quality of research. With healthcare specifically, greater diversity among physicians has the potential to improve health outcomes.
However, despite concerted efforts to bring more diversity to STEM and healthcare, we still have far to go. Recent research found that from 2002 to 2017, there was an increase in diversity in medical school enrollment. But many say the rate of change has been too slow. “We see the trend going up, but it’s going up very slowly,” Yale Assistant Professor Dr. Dowin Boatright told NPR. “If we’re trying to get some degree of representation that matches the proportion of black people in the population as a whole… We’re talking 20 to 50 years.”
Similarly, a study published in Educational Researcher reported that there is a disconnect between enrollment rates and retention. Though black and Hispanic college students enroll in STEM majors at similar rates to white students, they leave those majors at disproportionate rates. 26% of black STEM majors left their institutions without a degree, the study reported, in contrast to 13% of white STEM majors who did the same.
If there’s a takeaway to be found in these numbers, it’s that getting students in the door isn’t enough to bring true diversity to these fields. Lasting change requires ongoing support.
In a recent article for RealClearEducation, Karl Reid laid out three action items for better supporting underrepresented STEM students.
1. Bring more inclusivity to America’s universities. Just as patients need doctors who look like them, students need professors in whom they can see themselves. In 2016, only 3% of full-time faculity in degree-granting postsecondary institutions were Black males, Black females, and Hispanic males. “If we want all students to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion,” Reid writes, “we need to have more professors who look like the students we’re trying to recruit.”
2. Provide ongoing support, from matriculation through graduation and beyond. Given the statistics about the shortage of black and Hispanic professors at America’s colleges and universities, we need to make first-generation and underrepresented students feel supported and connected, even in an environment where they don’t see many people who look like them.
3. Expand financial aid. Not only do financial hardships impact enrollment rates—more privileged students can work with private tutors and partake in costly college prep courses—they limit access to opportunities once enrolled. Medical school contains many hidden costs, from MCAT registration fees to the cost of travel for interviews. Meanwhile, unpaid internships and research opportunities can be prohibitively expensive for students with fewer resources.
Opening the door to opportunity is only the beginning. We owe to our students—and to our communities as whole—to offer ongoing support.