The STEM of the Problem

Among the efforts to unlock the United States’ research and development potential, one to receive the most attention has been the educational development of domestic human capital in four vital fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—also known as the STEM fields. Unfortunately, minorities have always represented a disproportionately small percentage of STEM degrees awarded in the US.

On October 23, Jesse Washington, writing for the AP, analyzed the National Center for Education Statistics’s publication on demographic involvement in STEM post-secondary education fields and came to the conclusion that an even smaller percentage of STEM degrees are going to black graduates:

The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. It may seem far-fetched for an undereducated black population to aspire to become chemists or computer scientists, but the door is wide open, colleges say, and the shortfall has created opportunities for those who choose this path.

Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Read the full article here.

Washington neglects to cite statistics to support his claim that decreasing involvement of African-Americans is a trend in all levels of degree attainment. On the contrary, the statistics in the NCES report suggest that more associate’s, master’s, and PhD degrees are going to black scholars.

The NCES report compares demographic details from the STEM fields for the 2000-2001 school year and the 2008-2009 year. For all degree levels, a decreased percentage really does support Washington’s analysis: compared to 8.1 percent of STEM degrees earned by African-Americans in 2001, only 7.5percent were earned by that group in 2009. This decrease is mostly attributable to a declining percent of certificates and bachelor’s degrees going to the demographic group, though. Other degree levels experienced growth over the same period. The percent of associate’s degrees going to black scholars increased from 11.4 percent to 12.0 percent, master’s degrees from 3.5 percent to 3.6 percent, and doctorate’s from 1.9 percent to 2.3 percent.

However, percent changes in the statistics for the same time period within New York show very different, and significantly more dismal, trends for black STEM degree earners. Statewide, the percent of all degrees going to African-Americans fell from 8.4 percent to 7.1 percent. Only 6.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees went to black students in 2009, versus 7.5 percent in 2001, and 2.8 percent of master’s degrees were awarded to African-Americans in 2009 as opposed to 3.2 percent in 2001. Black PhD earners beat the trend, though: where less than 1 percent of all PhDs in New York were earned by African-Americans in 2001, around 2.2 percent of the degrees went to black students in 2009.

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