STEM fields are highly lucrative and in demand, but Black, brown, and female students face unique barriers to receiving a STEM education in college.

Achieving Diversity and Inclusion in College STEM


  • Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors remain mostly white and male.
  • Diversity efforts in college STEM could help close wealth and graduation gaps.
  • Enhancing recruitment and retention efforts is essential for STEM inclusivity, experts say.

In the early 2000s, U.S. colleges and universities began opening offices of diversity, which typically relied on a single officer to field student, faculty, and staff complaints and to expand culturally narrow curricula. But with new pressure on schools to support underrepresented students, the single-desk model of administering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts is on its way out.

Colleges leading the DEI charge, including the University of Michigan, place a DEI officer inside every academic program. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs — growing each year in prestige, popularity, and potential income for graduates — are forerunners in this effort, but continue to face some of the toughest DEI challenges.

While colleges have diversified rapidly in terms of race and gender, STEM programs continue to graduate more white students than Black and brown students. Asian students, meanwhile, pursue STEM majors at the highest rate of any student demographic: One-third of bachelor's degrees awarded to Asian students in 2015-16 were in STEM fields — that's almost double the total percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded in STEM that year.

Studies show slow or stagnant growth in the number of STEM degrees awarded to both students of color and female students. Between race and gender in STEM diversity, it's gender that lags more: The difference between the number of STEM degrees awarded to male students (64%) and female students (36%) eclipses any difference among racial groups.

“Cultural change often does not happen quickly, and is not the kind of thing that we in science, in engineering are used to measuring.”

Dr. Joyce Yen, Director of the University of Washington ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change

Female minority students are even more drastically underrepresented in STEM. White men earn bachelor's degrees in engineering at six times the rate of Hispanic women and over 11 times the rate of Black women. (Effectively all STEM education data is gender binary — another DEI shortcoming.)

Last year brought new urgency to colleges' DEI efforts. Dr. Joyce Yen, director of the University of Washington's ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, says that intensity is productive and that a problem-solving mindset is particularly endemic to STEM; however, urgency is somewhat at odds with the slow-going nature of cultural change.

"This is not work that is going to change overnight," said Yen in an interview with BestColleges. "Cultural change often does not happen quickly, and is not the kind of thing that we in science, in engineering are used to measuring."

Without cultural change, underrepresented students and their faculty mentors could continue to exit STEM fields. Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, earth sciences professor at the University of California, Merced, told BestColleges that higher education must "ensure that the folks from minoritized communities who are recruited to colleges are going to be part of supportive work environments."

Lack of Diversity in STEM at Root of Pay Gap

Over 20% of U.S. adults aged 25 or older hold a bachelor's degree, and nearly 10% hold a master's degree. Among Black, Latino/a, and Native American students, however, the share of adults with either degree drops by 5 or more percentage points.

Educators first began paying attention to unequal education opportunities in the late 1990s. Since that time, Black students have closed the high school graduation gap, and both Black and brown students are attending college in greater numbers than ever before. Just two decades ago, students of color comprised less than 30% of the total undergraduate population; now, they make up more than 45%.

Getting to college is one challenge — getting through it is another. Black and brown students are more likely to be first-generation college students, facing the hard work and red tape of higher education on their own. They're also more likely to take out big loans and be defrauded by for-profit universities, which charge more for degrees that hold less value on the job market.

Underrepresented minorities face steep costs and steep challenges to higher education. Colleges work to enroll diverse students, but many minority recruits struggle without family, financial, and academic support. They also lack representation among faculty, with few or no professors from similar backgrounds whom students of color can look to as mentors.

Underrepresented minorities face steep costs and steep challenges to higher education. Colleges work to enroll diverse students, but many minority recruits struggle without family, financial, and academic support.

Though similar percentages of white, Latino/a, and Black students declare STEM majors at the start of their studies, nearly 4 in 10 Latino/a and Black students end up switching their majors, compared to 29% of white students.

Furthermore, just half of Black and Latino/a college students graduate within six years. Attrition is high among Black and Latino/a STEM majors, with 26% of Black students and 20% of Latino/a students dropping out. The time and money suck of an unfinished college degree can set students back for life.

STEM fields are notoriously nondiverse. For every year these lucrative fields fail to graduate more students of color, the racial pay gap splits open even wider. The same goes for the gender pay gap: The highest-earning STEM jobs employ the lowest percentage of women workers. This division in earning potential starts in college.

While retaining female students and students of color in STEM would be a major step toward achieving pay equity, successful graduates still face an uphill battle when it comes to monetizing their degrees. Women of color in STEM — doubly prejudiced against first in education and then on the job market — earn about 60% of white men's salary.

College STEM Programs Work Toward DEI Goals

Supporting underrepresented students in STEM is a vital step toward ensuring college makes good on its economic promises. Closing both racial and gender education and pay gaps depend on it. But according to DEI experts, the ultimate payoff of centering DEI in STEM education are conscientious scientists and innovations borne of inclusivity.

"The questions that we ask now are actually weaker questions," explained Yen, who noted that scientific questions during research and development often fail to look at the world through a DEI lens. Without that lens, key pieces of information are left out. The result? Voice recognition software that can't pick up higher-pitched female voices, and facial recognition software that fails to see darker-skinned faces.

“There was a time [when] voice recognition systems literally could not hear female voices. … You are both metaphorically and literally silenced.”

Dr. Joyce Yen, Director of the University of Washington ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change

Scientists and engineers occupy pivotal roles in either perpetuating or interrupting the inequalities embedded in the world around us. When STEM students are taught to see through a DEI lens, it changes which problems are addressed and how solutions are optimized to be truly inclusive.

As a pioneering institution in DEI, the University of Michigan charged all 51 of its academic and administrative units to develop DEI plans. Each unit was then made to appoint its own diversity officer to serve as a "culture catalyst" and to "lead, coordinate, support, execute, and create structures of accountability."

While U.S. institutions of higher education continue to struggle to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments, intentional efforts, such as those made by the University of Michigan, show promise.

Where Colleges' DEI Intentions Fall Short

Thanks in part to colleges' recruiting efforts, enrollment numbers indicate improvements in diversity. But the graduation gap, particularly among underrepresented students who declared STEM majors, persists.

Diversity is only partially addressed when colleges focus on recruitment, rather than climate and retention. Berhe says DEI priorities must include "a reimagined mentoring structure" that allows multiple faculty members to support minority students as they learn and face different challenges.

Berhe also echoes a growing call for greater accountability. "We can't sufficiently address these DEI priorities," she explained, "if we can't address racial discrimination and hold those who express biases accountable."

“We can’t sufficiently address … DEI priorities if we can’t address racial discrimination and hold those who express biases accountable.”

Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Earth Sciences Professor at UC Merced

Diversity officers complain that their work is merely performative if they're not empowered to interrogate how colleges invest or to place community members on probation for failing to uphold DEI codes of conduct.

Without these powers, "diversity, equity, and inclusion" risks becoming a simple catchphrase or checklist that allows institutions to profit off the appearance of progress. That risk could rise during the pandemic, as some of the ad hoc policy changes that colleges have undertaken due to COVID-19 have failed to consider DEI commitments, according to faculty.

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