years after matriculating, only about 20 percent of underrepresented minorities who intended to earn a STEM degree have done so. Surprisingly, only about one-third of whites and slightly more than 40 percent of Asian Americans earn STEM degrees within five years.
Hrabowski ascribed part of this attrition to the culture of science and engineering in college. A large part of the problem is the “weed-out” mentality still held by many college faculty in these subjects, he said. When students have difficulties with their initial classes, they are more likely to be encouraged to transfer to another major than to receive help in overcoming those difficulties. Hrabowski recounted talking to the directors of the institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and saying that he had many friends who started in science or engineering and became great lawyers. “Everybody laughed, but afterwards the General Counsel of NIH came to me and said, ’You just told my story. I went to one of the Ivies. I started off in science. I had the best of test scores, the best of grades. I got wiped out in the first year and I changed to pre-law.â€™ It happens all the time.” Not only do such experiences lead to fewer students of all races majoring in science or engineering, but also they affect attitudes in general toward the subjects. He said, “You have to ask, how could Americans really love science or math. .. if they started off and [ended] getting wiped out? There is a negativity. When I ask audiences, ’How many of you love to read?â€™ everybody raises their hand. Then I ask, ’How many of you love math?â€™ and people start to laugh.”
The problem is urgent, Hrabowski said. A national effort to address underrepresented minority participation and success in STEM fields needs to be initiated and sustained. This effort must focus on all segments of the pathways, all stakeholders, and the potential of all programs, whether targeted at underrepresented minorities or at all students. Students who have had less exposure to STEM and to postsecondary education than others require more intensive efforts at each level to provide adequate preparation, financial support, mentoring, social integration, and professional development. Evaluations of STEM programs, along with increased research on the many dimensions of underrepresented minoritiesâ€™ experiences, are needed to ensure that programs are well informed, well designed, and successful.
The NRC committee that Hrabowski chaired made recommendations in Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: Americaâ€™s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2011) at the preschool through grade 12 level in the areas of early readi-