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Even as colleges pledge to improve, share of engineering graduates who are Black declines

As a junior studying bioengineering, Amida Koroma was a fixture on the dean’s list at the University of Maryland. Yet Koroma, who is Black, said she felt as if many of her white peers dismissed her as less capable.

“When we’re working on group projects, they’ll say things like, ‘You can do the typing,’ as opposed to getting into the nitty-gritty of how to build this robot,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like I have to prove myself all over again.”

This semester, Komida changed her major to psychology.

Experiences like this are why advocates are raising alarm that the proportion of college graduates with degrees in science, math and engineering who are Black is falling, even as demand for workers in those fields grows at double the rate of other occupations.

That’s a worrying trend for a profession in which Black people are already underrepresented.

And months after universities and scientific associations pledged to address it in response to the increased focus on systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be making the problem worse.

Black enrollment in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — is among the issues that urgently demand attention, said Cato Laurencin, CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. “We need to move from talking about the issue of Blacks in STEM and systemic racism to making concrete changes,” Laurencin said.

The proportion of bachelor’s degrees in science awarded to Black graduates remained flat at about 9 percent from 2001 to 2016, according to the most recent available figures from the National Science Foundation; in engineering, it declined from 5 percent to 4 percent; and in math, it dropped from 7 percent to 4 percent.

More recent figures released in April by the Pew Research Center show that, in 2018, Black students earned 7 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees.

College-going trends that have occurred during the pandemic threaten to lower these proportions even further. Total Black undergraduate enrollment at universities and colleges is down by more than 7 percent this semester from where it was last spring, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports.

This decline in the number of prospective of Black scientists, engineers and mathematicians is occurring even as demand increases. Employment in STEM fields is projected to grow twice as fast in the next decade as for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. STEM jobs also offer comparatively higher salaries and benefits.

Black people hold 7 percent of jobs in these areas requiring bachelor’s degrees, the Pew Research Center reports. That’s about half their proportion of the population.

Their absence could have consequences that are not just economic. Workforce diversity ensures that products will work equally well for everyone, said Virginia Booth Womack, director of the Minority Engineering Program at Purdue.

If people of color aren’t involved in the development of facial recognition, for instance, the software may misidentify Black people, Womack said. Different experiences, perspectives and approaches lead to greater scientific innovation, growth and competitiveness, she said.

“The decision-makers and innovators should consist of a diverse group,” Womack said. “In order to reflect the needs of the entire society, you need people who can innovate in that space and represent the needs of their culture, their community and the world.”

The decline in the number of Black graduates in STEM disciplines is partly due to bans in some states on the use by public universities and colleges of race-based affirmative action, according to research conducted at the University of Michigan that suggests these bans reduced the number of such degrees earned by Black, Hispanic and Native American students by 12 percent since they were enacted.

Broadening the idea of diversity has also diluted the degree to which some programs help Black students, said Laurencin, who has spent four decades mentoring students and creating programs to make science more inclusive.

Related: OPINION — Engineering programs still exclude black students; 4 ways to change this

“Pretty much 95 percent of people in the country are now a part of these different programs,” Laurencin said. “Rural is a group, urban is a group, first generation and veterans are groups. Blacks are often referred to as the reason the programs are needed, but we end up having the lowest representation in them.”

Black, white and Hispanic students declare STEM majors at roughly the same rates — 18 percent, 19 percent and 20 percent, respectively — according to research conducted at the University of Texas at Austin and Florida International University. But the numbers diverge when it comes to degree completion.

Fifty-eight percent of those white students earn a STEM degree, compared with 43 percent of Hispanic and 34 percent of Black students. Black and Hispanic students tend to switch majors or leave college in higher numbers, according to the same study.

“A lot of people develop impostor syndrome,” said Koroma, the University of Maryland student, who said she was often the only Black student in her engineering classes. “It’s, like, ‘Do I even belong here?’ I wear a hijab, and being a Black Muslim woman, it’s like being minority on minority on minority.”

Some universities are adding or reviving efforts to confront the problems.

Kiera Alexander graduated third in her high school class in rural South Carolina but did not take AP calculus. She was admitted to Winthrop University through a program that provided her with research opportunities, academic support, financial aid and a “bridge” program that gave her a head start in the summer before her studies began.

“I basically started my freshman year over the summer, which prepared me to take higher-level math and chemistry classes,” said Alexander, who had taken a year off before beginning college. “Had I not done that summer bridge program, I would not have passed my freshman classes. I struggled because I’d lost so much information that year I was out of school.”

Alexander became a McNair Scholar in her sophomore year, which made her eligible for faculty mentoring, a paid summer research job and other things needed to advance to an eventual doctorate. She tutored chemistry for three years, made the dean’s list for several semesters and is scheduled to graduate with honors. She often wonders how differently things might have turned out without the help she got.

Related: Too little aid for low-income STEM majors?

Despite graduating in the top 5 percent of his class, Jarred Young struggled at the University of Maryland because his high school hadn’t offered advanced math.

“I was doing algebra I in high school when my friends who went to the magnet school were taking algebra II, trigonometry, and one was already doing pre-calc,” he said. “By the time I got to Maryland, I was already two steps behind in math.”

Young struggled, had to repeat classes, and took five years to graduate, with support from another program, the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering. He went on to earn a doctorate in aerospace engineering and joined the Clark School of Engineering faculty. Without the help he got, he said, he could have easily become another STEM casualty.

The proportion of participants in a bridge program run by the University of Maryland’s Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering who stay from their first to second years is 92 percent, higher than the 89 percent of all engineering students who do so, according to the university. At Purdue, students who participated in 2013 in a similar initiative, a summer academic “boot camp” run by the Minority Engineering Program, had a six-year graduation rate that was 11 percentage points higher than the rate for the College of Engineering.

These programs also try to create more welcoming environments for students who feel isolated or marginalized in institutions that are majority white.

Related: To attract more blacks and Hispanics to STEM, universities must address racial issues on campus

Students of color in STEM majors are less likely to continue if they feel excluded, isolated or have discouraging academic experiences, a study by researchers at the universities of Illinois and Utah found.

“There are brilliant, highly gifted Black people who should be leading scientists in STEM,” said Laurencin. “But systemic issues imbued with racism keep these promising students out.”

On a practical basis, he said, “we are not only hurting the competitiveness of our great country on the world stage, but we collectively are losing out on great discoveries, new insights and new technology that Blacks in STEM could provide.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Amida Koroma changed her major to psychology.

This story about Black students in STEM fields was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.