A new study by USC’s Center for Urban Education found that few Latinos who attend four-year universities are entering science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields, and many say they see this trend at USC.
The three-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation, examined the pathways Latino students take to earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.
The number of Latinos in STEM fields has risen, but it has neither kept pace with the growth in the general population nor has that number grown as fast as the number of Latino students in non-STEM fields.
In 2007, 38,546 Latino students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, while 86,241 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a non-STEM field.
“This is a system-wide problem,” said Alicia Dowd, co-director for the Center for Urban Education. “The first step is to look at the data and the racial and economic discrepancies.”
For Latinos in community college and four-year institutions, the decision to enter the STEM fields starts long before they enter college, according to Kevin Meza, transfer coordinator at Glendale College.
“Many Latinos do not have an awareness of what a career in the science means. [There is] a lack of role models in the sciences and lack of academic services,” Meza said.
Part of the problem, Dowd said, is that diversity among faculty is very limited. Less than 5 percent of faculty in the STEM fields are Latinos.
“To this day, I have never come across an American Latino in physics, either as a student or as a professor,” said Jorge Rodriguez, a junior majoring in physics. “One might understand how this can be discouraging.”
Rodriguez said he does, in fact, feel like a minority in his major.
“I believe there are only about 10 or so physics majors in the class of 2011, and I know that I am the only one that is Latino,” he said.
He noted that it can be hard for Latino students to become interested in STEM fields because few members of the Latino community work in those fields.
“It seems that science often appears too abstract, and few members of the Latino community have any direct experience with people who work in scientific fields,” Rodriguez said.
Meza noted that some Latino students are the first in their family to attend college, so the expectation to enter into a STEM program is absent.
“They need constant support,” Meza said. “They need a mentor or people who have been successful or came from a similar background to help pave a realistic pathway for students to follow.”
Other Latino students said the lack of resources is a reason they choose not to enter STEM fields.
“I don’t feel there are resources here at USC for minorities who want to pursue a career in the health sciences,” said Daniela Rodriguez, a senior majoring in health promotion and disease prevention. “It’s easy to get discouraged, and if you already have things against you, who is going to be the positive influence in your life? That is where I think USC can have some resources for minority students.”
Others say lack of support and family obligations are vital factors in explaining why few Latinos enter STEM programs.
“I think that is what many people don’t understand … you should be able to do the same thing because you are given the same opportunities,” Rodriguez said. “We all start the race at the same time, but we start at difference places.”
The study also found that the role of community colleges has largely been overlooked as a way to increase the number of Latinos in STEM careers.
Latinos are more likely to attend community college than are members of other ethnic groups, and nearly 60 percent of all Latinos enrolled in postsecondary education attend a community college, Dowd said. A way to increase the number of Latinos in STEM programs could be to create a better relationship between community colleges and four-year universities by having faculty interact and nurture an open dialogue.
“There are different programs at community college that try to encourage minorities to enter the sciences,” Meza said. “But many Latino students think the sciences are not a option for them.”
The study also suggested that one solution might be to give scholarships for Latino students entering the STEM fields.
The study estimates that science and engineering jobs are expected to grow by 26 percent from 2004 to 2014. Additionally, Latinos are projected to compose nearly 30 percent of the entire U.S. population by 2040 and will soon be the largest demographic group in several Southwestern states.
“We need the talent,” Dowd said. “In a democratic society we need to have every community be represented. “