Keeping the door to STEM education open to a diverse student body leads to the expansion of the future STEM workforce and future innovation.

Ensuring inclusive STEM education under new affirmative action guidelines

Keeping the door to STEM open to a diverse student body will lead to the expansion of the future STEM workforce and future innovation

Key points:

Universities can no longer consider an individual student’s race in college admissions, potentially limiting educational and career opportunities for underrepresented students. This summer, the United States Supreme Court ruled In Students For Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard College and University of North Carolina that the two schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Title VI Civil Rights Act of 1964 by “impermissibly using race in their undergraduate admissions processes.” The Court’s decision requires any college or university receiving financial assistance to exclude race as a factor, leaving many institutions unsure of how to recruit marginalized students lawfully.

Up until June 29, 2023, race-conscious college admissions policies helped offset deeply rooted inequalities that persist in our educational system. Such policies have helped level the playing field; however, inequities still prevail despite these efforts, specifically in STEM disciplines. Recent data by the National Center of Education Statistics indicates that nearly 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM were awarded to White students. In comparison, only 15 percent were awarded to Latinx students and 9 percent to African American students.

Institutions still need to pursue opportunities to shrink those gaps and ensure access for all students to a bright future in STEM careers.

Given the Court’s recent ruling, here’s how colleges and universities can develop strategies that attract students of color, particularly in the STEM field.

  • Continue targeted recruitment and outreach initiatives. While the Court’s guidance restricts institutions from targeting students based on ethnic background only, it does allow schools to focus their recruitment efforts on underrepresented communities. For example, universities may tap into high school pathway programs that focus on increasing the pool of underrepresented college-ready high school students. They may also partner with schools or organizations that offer mentoring or other special programs to these groups. Schools can also focus on recruiting students in schools with high percentages of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch.
  • Develop inclusive essay prompts. The Court’s guidance states that colleges and universities can recruit students based on their unique backgrounds and experiences. By including essay questions that allow applicants to explain how their backgrounds and experiences might contribute to future innovation and problem-solving, admissions officers can identify diverse candidates. For example, The Common Application for 2023-24 includes a question students can choose to answer that says, “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
  • Create an inclusive environment. When students of all backgrounds feel welcome and understood, they can better envision themselves as part of your STEM community. Teachers with the right tools and training are better equipped to create a culture of STEM. For example, Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia, a Title I district where 75 percent of students are of color, was able to create a culture shift around math. Teachers learned to change their perception of what a suitable candidate for accelerated math classes looked like. Starting in middle school, students had the opportunity to enroll in accelerated math and science courses, setting them up for success in high school. Students approached math with a growth mindset and built confidence in their skills. The district now reports a solid increase in qualifying Advanced Placement scores compared to five years ago, with nearly 60 percent of students in two high schools receiving qualifying AP scores as of 2020.

  • Develop diverse STEM resources:  Students who see people with similar backgrounds succeed in STEM roles are more confident in pursuing those roles. By making diverse perspectives and role models part of your school culture, you can help bridge the representation gap and encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue STEM disciplines. In their recruitment materials, institutions should include success stories that feature the experiences of underrepresented students and students furthest from opportunity and consider forming an advisory group of STEM undergraduates who can relay their experiences to high school applicants.

  • Establish retention and support programs: A recent study published in Higher Education Studies reveals that universities experience high attrition rates in STEM fields, with many minority students switching their majors to non-STEM areas, performing poorly compared to their peers in other programs, and/or dropping out of college without earning any academic qualification. This points to the need for retention and support programs that cater to the needs of underrepresented students in STEM. Colleges and universities can provide mentorship, resources and a sense of belonging to students throughout the application process—and afterward. Furthermore, colleges could partner with high school STEM educators to help bridge the gap in STEM knowledge for incoming first-year students. According to the study, an overlap of 12th-grade and college freshmen curricula would promote the ideal rigor for high school STEM education needed to set up students for success in college.

  • Build partnerships with other diversity-focused organizations: The Court’s guidance allows colleges and universities to “foster a sense of belonging and support through its office of diversity, campus cultural centers, and other campus resources.” Institutions can host meetings, assemblies, or listening sessions on race-related topics if they welcome individuals of all races. By partnering with diverse campus organizations, STEM departments can better attract and support students from under-represented groups. They can also learn best practices and strategies for relating to economically and racially diverse students from these organizations.

Keeping the door to STEM open to a diverse student body will lead to the expansion of the future STEM workforce and future innovation in the United States. By following these tips, colleges and universities can better attract and retain marginalized students to their STEM programs.

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