Clearing a Path for Latino Scientists

April 5, 2010

Whether by choice or by necessity, community colleges are the dominant institution for Latino students: Nearly three in five Hispanic students in postsecondary education attend a two-year college, a far greater proportion than for any other racial or ethnic group.

So to the extent that Latinos are underrepresented among bachelor's degree recipients in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, increasing the flow of STEM students from community colleges to four-year institutions -- and better ensuring the success of those who go on to Hispanic-serving institutions -- is likely to be the best way to attack that deficit, a new report argues.

The study, "Improving Transfer Access to STEM Bachelor’s Degrees at Hispanic Serving Institutions through the America COMPETES Act," is the latest of a series of a reports prepared by the University of Southern California's Center for Urban Education. It is part of a three-year project financed by the National Science Foundation aimed at helping the NSF carry out a provision in the America COMPETES Act directing it to develop a Hispanic Serving Institutions Undergraduate Initiative. The report was prepared by Alicia C. Dowd and Elsa E. Macias, of the Center for Urban Education, and Lindsey E. Malcom, an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

The study shows that while the number of Latinos earning bachelor's degrees has increased over the last decade, the growth has occurred disproportionately in non-science fields and in the social sciences and psychology rather than "harder" STEM disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics and engineering.

The report identifies several reasons for the gap: While Hispanic-serving colleges (those where at least 25 percent of students are Latino) produce 40 percent of all Latino bachelor's degree recipients, they prepare just 20 percent of STEM graduates, which the authors attribute in part to "the fact that HSIs have been chronically underfunded in the distribution of federal STEM research dollars, which has limited their capacity to offer the undergraduate research opportunities that are known to attract and retain students in the sciences."

Only a third of the 20 percent of HSI graduates who do major in scientific fields have attended community colleges, even though significantly greater proportions of students at Hispanic-serving baccalaureate institutions started out at the two-year institutions. Given that disparity, the authors write, "it stands to reason that improvements in transfer access to STEM programs at HSIs will lead to tremendous growth in the number of Latino STEM baccalaureates."

The community college transfers who graduate from Hispanic-serving institutions with bachelor's degrees in science and technology fields do so disproportionately in computer science and mathematics, while four-year colleges that are not designated as Hispanic-serving are more likely than HSIs to turn Latino community college transfers into graduates in biology, environmental sciences, engineering and other fields.

Another apparent clog in the pipeline for would-be Latino scientists who attend community colleges is in the transition to research universities and academically selective colleges, the researchers find. Transfer students were twice as likely as their peers who did not attend two-year colleges to graduate within six years from Hispanic-serving institutions (32.1 vs. 16.8 percent) and significantly likelier than their counterparts to graduate from public four-year universities (83 percent as opposed to 62.9 percent).

But they were less likely to graduate from academically selective institutions (42 percent with an associate’s degree vs. 59 percent without one) or from research universities (25.3 percent as opposed to 43.5 percent), the study found.

The findings, the researchers write, "indicate the importance of using the America COMPETES Act funding to increase research and educational opportunities for Latinas and Latinos in STEM fields at HSIs as well as to improve their opportunities to transfer from community colleges to all types of universities."

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