The appeal for better diversity and inclusion in higher education is often rooted in ethical and political terms: we must expand college access to underrepresented groups so that they have equal opportunities to profit from post-secondary degrees. These claims are important. What is often overlooked, however, is the economic value of diversifying colleges and universities. According to McKinsey’s Diversity Matters report, “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are likely to have financial returns 35% higher than their respective national industry averages.”
The need for diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is particularly compelling. Artificial intelligence in particular has seen abundant failures due to the lack of diverse R&D teams: in motion sensors, image-recognition apps, and crime-prediction software. These sectors are also expected to see continued job growth. Unfortunately, the gap in graduate education, especially STEM doctoral education, is staggering. The Council of Graduate Schools report, Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2009 to 2019, found that in engineering, math and computer science, and physical and earth sciences, less than 3% of black/African American students hold master’s and doctorates is part of. The largest research university in the country, despite making up 13% of the US population. New data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that at the current rate of growth for Latinx and Black engineers, it could take 76 years to achieve equal representation. We must accelerate our progress.
But why is the accessibility problem so deep? We know that there are two major barriers to improving the participation of underrepresented minorities in undergraduate education. Equal access to and completion of the first bachelor’s degree is an ongoing challenge. Over the past decade, we have seen successful programs address this issue, but, again, our progress has been very slow. Last year, the Ed Trust released a report on the continuing underrepresentation in America’s most selective public colleges and universities. One of the most worrying findings was that the representation of black undergraduates in these schools is actually worse than in 2000. Nearly 60% of 100 schools experienced a decline in the number of black students enrolled, with an average reduction of 2.1%.
A second and related obstacle is the lack of financial support. We have seen an increase in the number of programs to address this issue, but, again, we must intensify our efforts. A recent study by my organization identifies concerns about affordability as a factor that prevents some students, especially from traditionally underserved backgrounds, from accessing graduate education. For example, 82.2% of enrollment management professionals noted the lack of financial aid since the COVID-19 pandemic as a concern for potential home students. Another study conducted by CGS specifically focused on racially and ethnically underrepresented undergraduate students at historically black colleges and universities. Of the prospective graduate students surveyed, 89% indicated that the availability of financial aid was extremely important or very important in deciding where to apply.
If lack of access and financial support are the biggest challenges, what steps can we take now to expand opportunities and strengthen the health of our workforce and economy?
Our first priority should be to recruit and engage diverse STEM talent from an early age. To do this, we need increased investment from federal and state budgets and agencies. Despite the increase over the past eight years, state and local funding for public higher education is still down 6% from 2008 levels and 14.6% from 2001 levels, according to a recent report by the State Higher Education Executives Association. To effect significant change, our entire education system, from preschool to post-secondary school, must work to establish strong diversity, equality and inclusion practices. Undergraduate education should adopt these ideals. The proposed US Innovation and Competition Act is a good step in that direction. It proposes to invest in extensive recruitment through incubators and industry/research alliances to engage young scientists. It will also create a new National Science Foundation Directorate of Technology and Innovation and a National Center for Technology.
Second, it will be important to support increased federal research investment in HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions. Over its 184-year history, HBCUs have faced persistent under-investment. A recent Government Accountability Office report indicates that nearly half of the buildings on HBCU campuses are in need of maintenance or replacement. The lack of federal support significantly affected their ability to modernize laboratories, libraries, student centers and residential halls. We applaud President Joe Biden’s proposed increase in the recently released budget proposal, including an increase in the federal Minority Science and Engineering Reform Program, as well as an increase in HBCUs primarily and historically for fiscal year 2022. $15 million in support for black graduate institutions. Black Institute.
Finally, we should expand access to Pell funding to graduate students. In 2016, 35% of Master’s students who were former Pell recipients did not finish all 12 semesters of available Pell support. If this need-based aid is extended, more students will receive grants to pursue master’s degrees, including areas in high-demand public-service sectors such as education and healthcare. The Expanding Access to Graduate Education Act, bipartisan legislation recently introduced in the House, would provide much-needed grant aid to students, reducing the student loan burden by $6,495 in each Pell-eligible year. That’s a meaningful savings: Master’s degree students who were former Pell recipients borrowed an average of $17,320 in 2015-2016. By allowing students to maximize Pell Grant rewards, policymakers will also encourage timely completion of graduate degrees.
We must make smart investments to expand the pipeline of students from diverse backgrounds before they reach college. Undergraduate education should be designed to meet this moment. Improving access to master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM will not only help minority students enjoy the economic and professional benefits of bachelor’s degrees. It will support the health of the American economy and workforce, and the future of all Americans.
Susan T. Ortega is the President of the Council of Graduate Schools.
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