Hrabowski: U.S. Needs to Invest in Minorities in Sciences

A clear priority for lawmakers when the new Congress convenes will be to address fears about the state of the economy and America’s prospects for long-term prosperity. While there will be much debate over the best programs and policies to get the economy back on track, there is one key area where bipartisanship should prevail: The U.S. must produce many more scientists and engineers who can compete in a world where new technologies and discoveries will play a pivotal role.

To meet the demand, we will need to draw from the groups that are now the least represented in the science and engineering work force: blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

My own experience taught me the special challenges faced by these groups. In the 1960s, at the end of my 10th-grade year in Birmingham, Ala., my parents sent me to Massachusetts to study math and chemistry for the summer. It was the first time I would sit in a classroom with white children and be taught by a white teacher.

As someone who always loved mathematics, I was particularly excited about learning the subject in an environment more privileged than my segregated school in the South. Unfortunately, my excitement began to fade on the first day when the teacher consistently failed to recognize my raised hand.

After a few days, as this happened again and again, I realized that she was never going to call on me, the only black child in the class. I spent that summer learning not only a lot of math but also how it felt to be invisible in a classroom.

Many of today’s black, Hispanic and Native American students enjoy a more positive learning environment than I did in that class years ago. But if you ask minority students pursuing advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math about their experiences, you’ll learn we still have a long way to go. Many find themselves isolated because there are so few minority students taking these courses.

Others tell how they switched majors or dropped out either because they didn’t have the academic preparation or the financial support to be full-time students devoting long hours to their studies.

Minorities are the fastest-growing groups in the country, yet they are the least represented in science and engineering careers. If the nation is truly concerned about maintaining its global economic competitiveness, we must ensure that these underrepresented minorities become active participants.

The reasons go beyond “it’s the right thing to do.” The U.S. labor market is projected to grow faster in science and engineering than in any other sector in coming years. Despite some gains, U.S. minorities still constitute only 9 percent of the nation’s labor force in science and engineering, even though they make up close to 30 percent of the total population. In recent years, foreign students have filled the gaps in many fields.

But increasingly, international students are taking their skills and talents back to their own countries. Those who do remain in the U.S. are often ineligible for sensitive positions in such areas as homeland security and defense.

To remain competitive, America must invest in young people here at home, including minority students. It’s a daunting task, to be sure. To achieve a national target of 10 percent of all 24-year-olds holding undergraduate degrees in science or engineering, for example, we will need to at least quadruple the number of minorities in these fields. But it can be done if we act now by providing sustained leadership, coordinating efforts across government agencies and strengthening math and science teaching in K-12 and higher education.

We can begin by retaining minority students who are already pursuing science, engineering and mathematics degrees in college. Studies show that minorities plan to major in these fields at the same rate as white students but are far less likely to complete degrees. A program that offers much-needed financial assistance is crucial. In fact, students pursuing these degrees need the financial support necessary to devote themselves full time to their demanding studies.

Just as important, minority students also need extra social support and mentoring. Many simply don’t have the guidance that a lot of us take for granted. Fortunately, proven and successful programs exist that can be replicated by all types of higher education institutions — from community colleges to minority-serving institutions and predominantly white universities.

By providing strong financial and social support, we can double the number of minorities earning undergraduate degrees in science, engineering and math in the next few years.

This short-term solution might also help us with a long-term problem: improving the quality of our K-12 science and math instruction by producing better prepared teachers. Again, this would benefit all U.S. students, but it’s particularly important for minority children, who don’t perform as well on math and science standardized tests or course work as white students do.

We need the minds and talents of all Americans if we are to rebuild the economy and stay competitive in this ever-more-technological world.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, recently chaired a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine that wrote the report “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.”