Study: gap in Latino education

A report released last week by the USC Rossier School of Education’s Center for Urban Education revealed key reasons for an education gap among Latino students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and made recommendations for improvements, including USC’s role in the effort.

The report  was based on a three-year CUE study that examined Latino students who had obtained bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The study highlighted the underrepresentation of Latino students in STEM fields most often because of the difference in funding for resources at universities. This is not to say that there is an achievement gap, said Alicia Dowd, associate professor of education and co-director of CUE, and one of three authors of the report.

“It can’t be an achievement gap if the opportunity is not there. This is an opportunity gap in our provision of education,” Dowd said. “The colleges and universities where most Latino students are enrolled have received less funding to provide STEM programs.”

The study compared students who had obtained associate’s degrees at community colleges and attended Hispanic-serving institutions with those who had not.

“What we’ve seen through our study is that among Latinos who do earn bachelors degrees [in STEM fields], very few are able to do so coming through community colleges,” Dowd said.

A Hispanic-serving institution of higher education, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, is one whose enrollment of undergraduate full-time student is at least 25 percent Hispanic.

California currently has 81 Hispanic-serving institutions, the highest number in the United States.

According to the report, a significant way to increase representation and retention of Latino students in these fields is through increasing research opportunities at community colleges and HSIs.

“Traditionally underrepresented college students are the fastest growing group among our young population,” said Brian Prescott, director of policy research in the Policy Analysis and Research unit at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in a press release. “We want to make sure these students are given the support they need so they can complete their college goals.”

Dowd said one key pathway to reducing the opportunity gap is through the expansion of professional development.

In particular, this means further developing the environment in which faculty at both four-year colleges and community colleges come together to improve “curriculum alignment,” she said.

Focusing on making the curriculum of community colleges more similar to those of four-year colleges could help students become better prepared to advance in STEM fields, or if they transfer schools, Dowd said.

“That cannot happen without faculty knowing the kinds of teaching and content and instructional strategies taking place in other institutions,” she said.

Dowd said the report suggests USC could play a larger role in looking to community colleges as a source for obtaining a portion of their own future graduates as well as in collaborating with community college faculty to provide curricular resources.

“USC can partner with the HSIs [nearby] to become innovative [in producing] a culturally responsive pedagogy in STEM fields,” Dowd said.

Donna Harris, a senior majoring in public policy, planning and management, said she thinks exposing Latino students earlier on to fields such as math and engineering would help the numbers.

“I would suggest having Viterbi [and other STEM area schools] do community outreach to increase interest,” she said.

Not only do CUE’s findings address issues of social equity, but they also have tangible implications for the future of the nation’s workforce, according to the report.

Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States and are projected to constitute 25 percent of the population in 2020.

“It’s important that Latino [students] be more exposed to [top-notch] fields like engineering and math if they are interested because we need to be thinking seriously about replacing baby boomers’ jobs,” Harris said.