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New Answers for Increasing Minorities in Science

For decades, the conventional wisdom was that increasing the number of minority scientists requires addressing every aspect of the pipeline—from elementary school through hiring and promoting faculty members. That's still true, says a new report out today from the National Academies—but one approach stands out above the rest. The fastest way to train more minority scientists in scientific and technical fields, it says, is simply to improve the retention and completion rates of undergraduate students already interested in the natural sciences and engineering.

"We are missing what could be called the low-hanging fruit," says Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and chair of the National Research Council panel. "These are students who have gotten into college and are majoring in math and science and who want to be in those disciplines. But more than half of them are not completing degrees in those fields."

Although the report is titled Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, Hrabowski says its broader message is that shrinking the high attrition rates in the natural sciences and engineering is really an "American issue. It is simply unacceptable for 55% of whites and Asians not to succeed. And the situation is even more dire for blacks and Latinos. So the minority aspect is just one part of a bigger challenge we face. If America is to compete successfully in a global innovation economy, it must find ways for larger number of American students to excel in science."

The report contains some good news, noting that the share of African Americans and Latinos in the overall pool of college students has grown over the past 3 decades to 26% of all undergraduates, including those seeking a 2-year degree. That figure still falls short of their 33% share of the college-age population, however. And minorities are even more underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. While the overall percentage of 24-year-olds in the United States with STEM degrees is 6%, it's just 2.7% among African-Americans and 2.2% for Latinos. Yet the report notes that a longitudinal survey of freshmen finds "underrepresented minorities aspire to major in STEM in college at the same rate as their white and Asian-American peers, and have done so since the last 1980s."

Retention and completion rates won't increase until universities provide better academic, social, and financial support for underrepresented minority students, the report declares. Raising the overall share of the young adult population with STEM degrees to 10%, a target embraced by previous National Academies reports and national policymakers, would require a tripling of current degree production rates for underrepresented minorities. The report estimates that providing needy students with the financial support they will need to earn their degrees would cost $150 million a year for the first cohort and eventually rise to an annual level of $600 million. It says that support should come from all federal agencies with programs aimed at increasing minority participation in STEM fields.