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STEM diversity
Tiana Young is a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where a racist Facebook post from a student in the alt-right group Turning Point left the African-American community shaken and frustrated by the school’s lack of public response. Credit: Stuart Miller for The Hechinger Report

TROY, N.Y. — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was not Tiana Young’s first choice for college, even though Young wants to dual major in aeronautical and mechanical engineering, and the private university is one the top schools in the country for science, technology, math and engineering.

The school had one big drawback: Rensselaer’s student body is more than two-thirds white and Asian, according to federal data. For Young, who is black and whose high school in Spring Valley, New York was almost entirely African-American and Hispanic, “the lack of diversity was a very big concern,” says the freshman.

But Young, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, needed significant financial aid to attend college, and Rensselaer made a financial offer she couldn’t refuse.

Academically, the school has been challenging but rewarding, a sentiment echoed by other African-American freshman.   “I feel like I’ll leave here 1,000 times smarter and ready for any job,” says Young’s friend Charles Omoregbee, an engineering major. While Young has made white friends in her dorm — everyone rallied to help her when a mouse scampered into her room and hid — and in the Society of Women Engineers, her closest friends are all African-American. Most white students are friendly, but small slights and one major incident have left Young and other African-American students stressed by more than just homework.

During the first month of school, a white student who is part of the alt-right group Turning Point USA created a Facebook post that called for the return of separate water fountains for whites and “Coloreds.”

Young and her African-American classmates were shaken up by the post, and equally angered by the fact that the school never publicly addressed the issue. Some even contemplated transferring. “When we got here they acted like it’s all rainbows and sprinkles at Rensselaer, but when something happens then everyone is silent,” says Jenari Mitchell, a freshman computer science major.

“When we got here they acted like it’s all rainbows and sprinkles at Rensselaer, but when something happens then everyone is silent.”

Students of color studying science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as STEM) are underrepresented at schools around the country and even though most don’t face overt racism they face a set of challenges that have led to persistent issues of under-representation at the graduate levels and across STEM professions.

African-American and Latino workers comprise just 16 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce, 15 percent of the computing workforce and 12 percent of the engineering workforce, rates that have remained essentially flat for more than a decade, according to the 2015 US News/Raytheon STEM Index. And yet some STEM industries are already facing shortages of qualified personnel, and others project major growth in the future. Encouraging blacks and Hispanics, both growing populations, to pursue STEM careers is both an equity issue and crucial for the economy, according to Rodney Andrews, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas. But, experts say, higher education must do more to address a set of challenges that keep blacks and Hispanics from pursuing STEM degrees.

Related: An urban charter school achieves a fivefold increase in the percentage of its black and Latino graduates who major in STEM

STEM diversity
Students at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The school has made steady progress in increasing diversity on campus. Enrollment of underrepresented minorities has climbed from 12 percent in 2002 to roughly 27 percent this year. Credit: © Allen Holder/TNS/

Paying for college can be a major obstacle for black and Hispanic students, who are more likely to live in poverty than their white peers and more likely to be the first in their family to attend college. They’re also more likely to attend poorly resourced segregated public schools that lack the tough curriculum needed to prepare them for college-level STEM courses. When they arrive on campus, college culture also makes a difference to the number of black and Hispanic students pursuing STEM degrees Experts and students say colleges and universities, especially STEM research institutions, aren’t doing enough to ensure that students of color don’t switch majors or drop out entirely.

According to one recent study, 37.5 percent of white and Asian-American students completed STEM degrees after five years, while completion rates for African-American and Latino students were 22.1 percent and 18.4 percent respectively. “It’s no longer enough to just teach students,” says Tim Scott, assistant provost for undergraduate studies at Texas A&M University. “We need to ask, ‘What tools do we need to retain them?’”

Eugene Fiorini, a mathematics professor at Muhlenberg College who oversees a summer preparatory program, says schools don’t do enough to integrate students of color into campus life. “The research shows that the trouble these students have in college has nothing to do with intelligence they don’t feel like they are part of the college and they drop out more because of cultural isolation,” he says.

For black and Latino students shifting from segregated high schools, where they rarely saw a white face, to STEM-oriented research institutions where blacks and Hispanics are a tiny percentage of the student population, the adjustment can be especially difficult. “When I got here I thought, ‘Wow, so this is what it means to be a minority,’” says Young. Rensselaer’s student population is 15 percent black and Hispanic this year, according to statistics provided by the school. “It was a culture shock.”

Historically black colleges and universities represent just 3 percent of all colleges but 27 percent of all STEM degrees earned by black students. Small liberal arts colleges may also be more explicitly inclusive, sources say. Steven Hightower, whose Newark, New Jersey high school was 90 percent minority, chose Brandeis University to study computer science. “There’s something different about going to a liberal arts college to study STEM,” says Hightower. “It’s very community-oriented. The faculty cares for the students and wants us to believe in ourselves.”

The vibe is often the opposite at STEM-oriented universities, where black and Hispanic students tend to be more underrepresented, says Andrews, of the University of Texas. He says those institutions, in particular, need to invest more resources into making students of color feel at home. “One of the returns you should get for attending college is a broader social experience,” he says. “But it is a different experience for students of color. If schools are just agnostic [not believing action needs to be taken to make minority students more comfortable] it leads to differences in performance.”

Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment

STEM diversity
Georgia Tech freshman Keandre Williams finds the school’s Office of Minority Educational Development valuable, but says Georgia Tech needs to do a better job of letting students know about such resources. Credit: Photo courtesy of Keandre Williams

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is trying to increase the number of black and Hispanic students on campus. Jonathan Wexler, Rensselaer’s vice-president for enrollment management, says the school began setting money and resources aside four years ago for scholarships and for outreach to high schools with underrepresented populations. It also began flying minority students who had been accepted — and their families — to campus in an effort to win them over. In 2010, 8 percent of Rensselaer’s students were black or Hispanic, according to federal data. In 2015, the number rose to 11 percent. Preliminary federal data shows black and Hispanic enrollment rose to 12 percent last year; according to Rensselaer’s internal data, the number of underrepresented minorities was 16.1 percent.

Even with an increase in their numbers on campus, minority students often feel like strangers in a strange land. One problem is that schools often “conflate diversity with inclusion,” according to Andrea Brenner, director of the new American University Experience first-year program at Washington, D.C.-based American University. The mandatory year-long program was created to provide freshman general information about college life and the resources available to them, and also to teach “about inequality in America and how it plays out on college campuses,” Brenner says. The AU Experience classes can “pause the curriculum” to focus on racial incidents, Brenner adds, whether they happen at school or nationally.

Without instruction and resources like those offered at AUx, minority students on many campuses turn to outside organizations, like the National Society of Black Engineers, for guidance and some friendly faces. Rohan Cherian-Ashe, a Rensselaer junior, praises the NSBE but says schools are sometimes too willing to let these organizations do their work for them. “I think the school should be doing what the NSBE is doing, pairing minority freshmen with upperclassmen from the same program.” Mitchell says if the school had emphasized inclusiveness and the subtle and often unintended acts of discrimination, known as “micro-aggressions,” in its orientation for all students, then perhaps the Facebook incident would not have happened.

Numerous studies have shown that the combination of a more welcoming culture and supportive networks of peers and older students, in tandem with tutoring and financial aid, helps improve retention of underrepresented minorities in STEM. Sara Garcia, research associate at the Center for American Progress, says progress in creating this environment is uneven, but, she adds, “We are seeing more momentum.”

Last year, Texas A&M introduced the Science Leadership Scholarship, which provides a stipend of $3,000 per year to 25 students. The race-neutral scholarship targets first-generation and low-income students, most of whom are members of underrepresented minority groups.

Related: Latino college students are falling behind whites and blacks, new research shows

The scholarship does more than just provide money; it also builds in resources and networking for students. Students meet twice monthly with an advisor and twice monthly as a group for presentations on topics ranging from sexual issues to money management to current events like President Trump’s anti-immigrant policy statements. The one-on-one meetings are “like a checkup,” says freshman Sergio Estrada, whose parents did not graduate high school.

37.5 percent of white and Asian-American students completed STEM degrees after five years while completion rates for African-American and Latino students were 22.1 percent and 18.4 percent respectively.

Sophomore Saron Gilazgi, whose parents were Eritrean war refugees, was in the first SLS cohort. She says minorities often arrive “with doubts about whether we belong. This program instills self-worth.” The group sessions were the most influential part of the program, she said, because “it is so comforting knowing we are not alone.”

STEM diversity
STEM student Steven Hightower purposely chose Brandeis, a small liberal arts university, over a STEM school for its more welcoming environment. Credit: Photo courtesy of Steven Hightower

The program is, however, just a drop in the bucket, at a school where just 3.7 percent of students are African-American and 20.5 percent are Hispanic, far below the percentage living in Texas. Still, the main campus of Texas A&M in College Station, has made impressive and steady progress in increasing diversity: In 2002, just 12 percent of its students were underrepresented minorities; that figure has climbed to roughly 27 percent this year.

Gilazgi only wishes the Science Leadership Scholarship program could expand. Estrada says freshman friends he made outside of SLS felt lost on campus and were unaware of the resources the school offered, information he learned through the program. Scott, the assistant provost, says scaling up the Science Leadership Scholarship would require significant outside funding. He hopes, instead, that sustained success by SLS students will provide data the school can use to convince other students to seek resources, from scholarships to on-campus tutoring, early.

The need to better educate students about the resources available to them on campus is a recurring theme at colleges across the country. Young, who is taking chemistry, calculus, economics and an introductory class in industrial analysis, felt everything was on track after her first round of tests, but the academic pace soon accelerated and the work became harder. “I was confident, then everything went downhill,” she says. She discovered that Rensselaer offers plenty of extra help and now regularly attends tutoring sessions. She says she learned about these programs from other students, not from the school. Many of her classmates also knew nothing about these programs, she adds.

Related: What happens when a college recruits black students others consider too risky?

Students at Georgia Institute of Technology are also frequently in ignorance of the assistance available to them, even though the school has an established program aimed at students of color. Freshman Keandre Williams says he only learned about his school’s Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED) “coincidentally” by overhearing a conversation. “They should boost the amount of people that know about these resources,” Williams says, adding that the tutoring and mentoring he has received through OMED has been invaluable.

“I’m not looking for some huge revolution. I just want somebody to care.”

Georgia Tech provost Rafael Bras expressed surprise, saying, “OMED is quite visible, the building is centrally located on campus and well-labeled,” he says. (He added he would explore ways to ensure students know about the department.)

Freshman Williams says his group of friends is large and racially mixed, but he has seen other black friends become isolated. Bras says Georgia Tech, a public institution, has a “large number” of minority students. “[C]ompared to most schools in the nation we are way up there. If you look around it is not an issue. We are an incredibly diverse institution,” he adds.

The school has been labeled an “engine of inequality” by College Results Online, a project of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, because of the low number of low-income students it admits. The percentage of Georgia Tech’s students who are black and Hispanic was 14 percent in the fall of 2016, according to federal data. It was 11 percent in 2010.

Williams says some of his African-American classmates feel “a tension, an alienation. Pushing integration should be a bigger goal for the school — if my friend feels, ‘I don’t have a place on campus,’ that will lead to bigger problems.”

Related: Column: Are hazing, sexual assault, drinking and unabashed racism inevitable on campus?

That sense of alienation is also an issue at Rensselaer Polytechnic. While the Student Union has a “Brave Space” for student discussions, a group of African-American freshmen interviewed for this article want the entire university to deal with racial issues. Freshman Kendrick Turner says the problem is often simply “racial ignorance,” but the months-long silence regarding the offensive Facebook post, with its call for a return to Jim Crow, has been particularly upsetting.

“The administration said they were investigating, but nothing has happened,” Young says.

Omoregbee doesn’t expect the school to solve racism; he just needs to believe the school wants minority students to feel included in the larger community.

“I’m not looking for some huge revolution. I just want somebody to care,” he said. (At American University, when Confederate flag posters appeared on campus, the school immediately scheduled a town hall at which the university president spoke.)

Rensselaer vice-president of student life LeNorman Strong, who is black, says the school continues to investigate the Facebook incident. “There is a lack of multicultural sophistication here,” says Strong, who joined Rensselaer this summer. “There is an over-sensitivity on one side or political correctness, and on the other side are students who, through attempts to be humorous, make some really dreadful errors. Young people are going to do things like that.”

He added that an assistant dean was available to discuss the situation with a group of African-American students who had attempted to raise the issue at a Turning Point meeting earlier in the semester. (Mitchell, who was at the meeting, says the white students were dismissive of their concerns and called the post a joke.)

Asked about the concerns expressed by Young and her friends, Strong says that if “the situation is beginning to take on life of its own, maybe we do need to do something more formal and more broad. I will reach out to see what we can do.”

Strong says Rensselaer is taking steps to make all students feel welcome, including a new “bias-incident response program” to streamline the process for students reporting problems. The school is also creating two brand-new administrative roles: assistant dean of student success for underrepresented minorities and director of multicultural programs.

“We want to build new programs,” he says. “Other schools have comprehensive diversity education programs and Rensselaer is ready to have that kind of initiative here.”

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  1. STEM Diversity at the Crossroads
    Founded in 1979, the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates (NAMEPA) is the national network of minority engineering programs, commonly called MEPs. MEPs are retention and academic enhancement programs for mainly under-represented engineering students. Located in nearly 100 engineering schools on university campuses, MEPs work to increase the number and diversity of students who graduate in engineering disciplines. This purpose is accomplished by building an active collaborative learning community among its student participants and maintaining effective linkages with the university community and industrial community.

    In addition to NAMEPA, there are at least 12 other national organizations related to the professional development and employment of underrepresented engineering students: *

    Not mentioned are the numerous local and regionally-based organizations related to the development of underrepresented STEM students, such as the Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers.

    In the realm of capitalism and free enterprise, this conundrum might be just “what the doctor ordered,” enabling industry to identify the best and the brightest. And without a doubt the need to hire the best and the brightest, who can “hit the ground running” is a strong imperative for companies to maintain their competitive edge in the rapidly expanding global economy. And yes, engineering graduates are rising to the occasion and demonstrating the skills necessary to compete in this “flat world.” Changes in engineering education over the last decade have led to better skills among graduates.

    “The areas of greatest improvement,” said J. Fredericks Volkwein, a professor of higher education at Penn State, “are in teamwork and communication skills and the ability to learn, grow, and adapt.” George D. Peterson, of ABET, says employers have sought those skills for a number of years. Multinational corporations, especially, “want students well versed in how to deal around the world,”. And with the rapid pace of technological change, companies want graduates “who have an appreciation for lifelong learning.” Without it, he added, “you’re obsolete in 5 to 10 years.”

    Those of us who represent NAMEPA know that MEPs are responsible for the improvement of teamwork and communication skills that engineering students must have. We know that the collaborative methodologies developed specifically for underrepresented minority engineering students which we have implemented over the years have strongly impacted not only our own students but how engineering schools in general do their business.

    Nevertheless, the reality is that increasing the participation of minorities in STEM disciplines has become a cottage industry of groups and organizations that have become dependent on this business for their livelihoods. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Having dedicated professionals working on the problem is a way to solve the problem. However, when money gets tight, as it is and has been, the ability and willingness to collaborate diminishes given the need to survive. Such is and has been the case with the aforementioned STEM diversity programs, organizations and consortia (SDPOC), of which this writer is a member. It is significant that there is no strategic organizational entity which oversees the totality of the effort to recruit, retain and graduate underrepresented STEM minority students, yet there are numerous SDPOC organizations working actively toward this effort, often in competition with each other for funding and students.

    So, yes, we do find ourselves in competition with each other. And, we lament the fact that our contributions to the workforce are not well-known and acknowledged as we think they should. This is not due to any self-serving egotistic need. We have nothing against competition per se, but competition in our case undermines our ability to accomplish our mission of increasing the number of STEM professionals. Competition undermines our ability to demonstrate to our own students the collaboration we instruct, promote, and preach to them. And competition undermines our ability to move forward a strong collaborative approach to not only underrepresented students but students in general. And if the global competitiveness scenarios with which we are being barraged of late are even partially true, our need to work together, not competitively, is essential to our continued existence.

    It is vitally important that the spirit of cooperation and collaboration be associated with STEM diversity programs and not competition. Why? Because, we should not be in competition with each other when it comes to the goal of increasing underrepresented minority participation in the STEM workforce. This is not a race to the top proposition. STEM is the acronym for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields and the academic and support programs that prepare individuals for the STEM workforce. STEM, in the past five years, has become the new buzzword to refer to America’s technological competitiveness in the global arena. Presidential initiatives advocating increased growth of STEM workforce are providing both the non-profit and for-profit environments with new funding opportunities.

    STEM is not a new initiative. NAMEPA has been in existence since 1979. The first MEP was started in 1973 at California State University, Northridge by Dr. Raymond Landis. In 2000 the program served nearly 6,000 undergraduates and accounted for 90% of California’s underrepresented recipients of B.S. degrees in engineering and computer science. MEP works in collaboration with the MESA pre-college efforts and the MESA Community College effort to recruit prospective students to the respective four-year institutions. Given state budget cutbacks, MESA was unable to completely fund the MEP. However, MESA continued to seek additional resources for this important program and was hopeful that state funding would be restored to the MEP in the future. Meanwhile, MEP centers received the majority of funds from their host institutions and received additional support from local industry partners. MESA provided partial funding and internship/scholarship opportunities.

    The MESA Minority Engineering Program changed its name to MESA Engineering Program in 1996 to deflect attention to its minority focus in response to Proposition 209. In 2003 defunded all of the MEP’s due to budget cuts under the acknowledgement that most of the MEP’s were institutionalized on their individual campuses, as was Cal Poly Pomona.

    Such has been the experience with many of the MEP’s throughout the country as budget cuts and deepening political divisions have not enabled MEP’s to grow and maintain the resource base needed to continue to be visible and effective. See: Shifting Sands in College Recruiting

    As educators, it is hard to compete as we all vie for the attention of corporate America, write grants, teach classes, advise and mentor students, and manage declining budgets and staffs.
    Still, as I advocated to engineering-related companies years ago, many SHPE, NSBE, MAES AISES, HENAAC students are all MEP students.

    “Funnel your funds on the individual campuses through the MEP. If there are SHPE, NSBE, AISES, MAES, HENAAC students on a MEP campus, those students are MEP students anyway. Assist the MEP with engendering its collaborative programs that have led to the acknowledged teamwork and communication skills improvements by ABET. Insist to these organizations that they work through the MEP’s who work with these students on a day-to-day basis and are truly responsible for the nurturance and guidance that produce the positive and competitive career development industry values. Broker a meeting with these groups and inform them of your need for greater collaboration and resource utilization.” Who best should be the recipient of the resources directed towards the nurturance and education of underrepresented minority STEM students? The direct service provider to the students which are the educational institutions themselves or the external brokers? Or, more importantly, how can we all work together in more effective collaboration than we are now?

    I propose that a governing entity or at minimum, an organizational entity oversee, support, assess, and represent these disparate groups as the ideal and most effective solution to accomplish this goal. I would be more than happy to discuss this in much greater detail. Please contact me at your earliest convenience at or (323) 753-5929 or (323) 240-9358.
    Milton Randle, Director Maximizing Engineering Potential (MEP)
    College of Engineering/Cal Poly Pomona (Retired)

    *SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers),
    NACME (National Action Council of Minorities in Engineering),
    AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society),
    MAES (Mexican American Engineering Society),
    NACME (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering)
    NOBCChE (National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers),
    NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers),
    MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement),
    HENNAC (Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference), WEPAN (Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network),
    SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science), SECME, Inc. (Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering),
    GEM (National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science

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