How Colleges Can Achieve Diversity in STEM

Diversity in STEM breeds inclusive innovation. Find out ways colleges can close the STEM diversity gap.
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Updated on November 1, 2023
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  • 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 STEM, asking good questions and finding solutions is the goal. With more diverse perspectives, the questions we ask become more meaningful and the solutions we find become more impactful. That's why diversity in STEM matters.

However, STEM programs continue to graduate more white students than Black and Brown students. So, how can colleges fix the problem and start working toward diversity in STEM? Read on to find out.

What Is Diversity?

Diversity happens when colleges include people from different cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders.

Studies show slow or stagnant growth in the number of STEM degrees awarded to both students of color and women<. 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.

Learn more about the BestColleges Black Women in STEM scholarship.

Why Does Diversity Matter in College STEM?

According to the University of Washington ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change Director Dr. Joyce Yen, colleges should prioritize diversity in STEM because it breeds inclusive innovation.

Yen noted that questions during scientific 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? Problems like voice recognition software that can't pick up higher-pitched female voices, and facial recognition software that fails to see darker-skinned faces.

The questions that we ask now are actually weaker questions, Yen said. There was a time [when] voice recognition systems literally could not hear female voices…You are both metaphorically and literally silenced.

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. Black and Hispanic women in STEM earn about 63% of white men's salary.

How Can Colleges Achieve Diversity in STEM?

Colleges can achieve diversity in STEM by creating a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) plan, and sticking to it.

1. Develop a DEI Plan

DEI plans help administrations and academic programs question the environment they place students in. Is it a welcoming one? How can we support historically excluded student groups? How do we mitigate discrimination in our programs?

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 U-M — show promise.

2. Empower DEI Officers to Do Their Jobs

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.

We can't sufficiently address these DEI priorities if we can't address racial discrimination and hold those who express biases accountable, Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, earth sciences professor at the University of California, Merced, said.

3. Focus on Recruiting Diverse STEM Students

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%.

This is a good start, but once you get diverse students in the door, you have to find ways to keep them there.

4. Create a Supportive Working Environment for STEM Students

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.

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

While universities have prioritized recruiting these students, they need to have a plan to support them. If not, they can't achieve diversity in STEM programs or graduate more diverse students into the STEM workforce.

5. Give Students Diverse STEM Mentors

Students seeing people who look like them succeeding in the field is key. However, diverse students lack representation among faculty, with few or no professors from similar backgrounds whom they can look to as mentors.

Berhe says DEI priorities must include a reimagined mentoring structure that allows multiple faculty members to support Black and Brown students as they learn and face different challenges.