Study: Diversity in STEM Classes Means Higher Grades for Everyone

New research found that more minority and first-generation students in STEM programs lead to higher grades.
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Published on January 16, 2024
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  • A new study found a significant correlation between the presence of minority students and an increase in grades for STEM students from all social and racial backgrounds.
  • For minority students, the presence of peers who are also minorities promotes a sense of belonging, which can contribute to academic success, according to the study.
  • A New York University administrator spoke favorably of the research and emphasized the significance of continued student diversity in STEM and other programs despite a recent Supreme Court ruling that may hamper diversity efforts.

The presence of minority students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses leads to better grades for students from all racial backgrounds, a study released in early December found.

Student racial diversity, according to some educators, like New York University (NYU) Dean of the Tandon School of Engineering Jelena Kovacevic, is a primary component of student and overall STEM program success. The latest research, which quantifies her observations at NYU on a national scale, should not come as a surprise, she told BestColleges.

At NYU Tandon, we believe diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments are not tangential or incidental to excellence, but rather are constitutive of it.

The study focused primarily on the presence of Hispanic/Latino/a, Black/African American, and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) students in STEM programs at a sampling of universities throughout the country. It determined that higher proportions of minority and first-generation students in STEM classes lead to more favorable grades among all students.

Nationwide, an estimated 12% of all Hispanic/Latino/a graduates, 7% of Black/African American graduates, and 35% of AAPI students earn their bachelor's degrees in STEM-related fields.

This compared to white students, who earned over 60% of all STEM degrees, according to a 2018 report.

Wide-Ranging Data, Broad Implications

Researchers conducted the study, “The Role of Minoritized Student Representation in Promoting Achievement and Equity Within College STEM Courses,” by evaluating the grades of over 11,000 students across more than 8,000 STEM courses at 20 universities.

Along with indicating that students from all classes and ethnic groups benefited from the presence of their minority peers, the study indicated that minority students, in particular, benefited most.

The presence of in-group peers may help bolster grades, especially for students whose identities are marginalized within and beyond STEM contexts more broadly, the study stated. For minority students, the presence of peers who are also minorities may promote a feeling of belonging that lends itself to academic success.

Unequivocal Support From Educators

While the study concluded by asking more questions and proposing further research, Kovacevic was more outspoken in her support of student racial diversity in STEM programs.

She cited a growing body of research in the business world that has explored if, how, and why diversity leads to better individuals, team, and company performance, as further confirmation of the present study's results.

She added, Diverse teams draw on expanded experiences and skill sets, are more creative and more effective at problem-solving, and are better capable of developing solutions that serve a broader set of users.

The study comes after the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision banning race-conscious college admissions processes. In states that banned affirmative action, like California, fewer students from underrepresented groups enrolled.

The study's authors proposed that such findings bolstered the argument for the need to increase ethnic diversity in the classroom.

But while they clearly referenced several consequential U.S. Supreme Court cases — including Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, which led to the ban of race-based affirmative action in college admissions and could negatively impact student diversity — the authors stopped short of explicitly calling the decisions unfair or detrimental.

Instead, Kovacevic deferred to NYU's official response to the Supreme Court ruling: NYU was founded on the belief that education should be open and accessible — principles to which we will continue to remain faithful. However [the Supreme Court] ruling may change the laws with which we must comply, we will not forsake our commitment to building and sustaining a scholarly community that is diverse and inclusive.

NYU has not yet issued detailed plans for ensuring continued diversity in its STEM or other academic programs.