Impoverished Science

Most people believe science and engineering would be better off – richer – if blacks, Hispanics, and native Americans weren’t such bit players in the research world. The question is why these groups have traditionally been so underrepresented. A new analysis points to low family income as a hefty contributor.

Kathryn Kailikole, director of the Stokes Institute, announced her brand-new-nonprofit organization’s presence last Wednesday. It was created under the auspices of the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Opportunity in Education. The new institute’s mission: to increase the participation of traditionally underrepresented demographic groups in science, technology, engineering, and math – the so-called STEM fields.

Kailikole briefed Capitol Hill staffers, Thursday, while attempting to enlist their support for a major overhaul of programs aimed at increasing diversity in STEM fields. She painted a bleak picture of where things stand – one that she also shared with me on Saturday.

To track where low-income, high-school freshmen end up, Kailikole has reviewed census and other databases. It’s no surprise that most of these students didn’t train for careers in biology or physics. But her numbers show that their drop-out rate from the resource stream feeding into the workforce is far worse than federal statistics have indicated.

She focused on students coming from families in the bottom quarter of incomes nationally. Of these, perhaps three-quarters are non-whites. So in a sense, she says, the low-income demographic is a proxy for economically deprived students of color, usually where they would be the first generation to attend college.

For every 10,000 low-income, high-school freshmen, 6,600 will get a high school diploma, she found. Slightly more than half of those, roughly 3,860 will enter college – although only 710 will graduate college, i.e. seven percent. Among those who go to college, just 76 will have majored in a STEM field – and fewer than half, 30, will eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field. “That’s 0.3 percent of the original 10,000,” Kailikole observes.

“So we’re basically losing 25 percent of the population” that could have could have trained for and entered the STEM workforce, she says. That’s a “horrific loss.”

“And a surprise,” she says. Much worse than federally compiled trend data indicated.

Ordinarily, she says, 16 percent of college graduates get degrees in STEM fields. And that’s what she saw when she followed students from across the nation, without stratifying by income: 2,400 out of every 10,000 will get a college degree, 400 in STEM fields. The fact that these STEM graduates come almost exclusively from middle- and upper-income families has basically escaped notice, Kailikole says. “And I think it’s because low-income hasn’t been on anybody’s radar screen.” Indeed, she found, few federal agencies look at STEM recruits by income level.

Their aggregating overall- and STEM-graduate figures, she says, hid the fact that one-quarter of the population has been disappearing from the STEM talent pool.

Her own experience as a college-math educator has shown that in many cases, low-income students enter college with an interest in and aptitude for STEM careers. Because these same students tend to enter college with both a greater financial need and “academic debt” – poor high-school preparation in STEM subjects – these students fall further behind their wealthier peers, semester after semester. Eventually, they decide it’s just too tough an uphill battle, she says, and they either switch majors or drop out.

Kailikole’s institute will be looking to address these disadvantages at both the pre-college and college level in hopes of retaining low-income students in STEM fields. She doesn’t kid herself: “It will be a challenge.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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