With black unemployment reaching historic levels, banks laying off tens of thousands and law school graduates waiting tables, why aren’t more African-Americans looking toward science, technology, engineering and math–the still-hiring careers known as STEM?
The answer turns out to be a complex equation of self-doubt, stereotypes, discouragement and economics–and sometimes just wrong perceptions of what math and science are all about.
The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. It may seem far-fetched for an undereducated black population to aspire to become chemists or computer scientists, but the door is wide open, colleges say, and the shortfall has created opportunities for those who choose this path.
Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
From community college through PhD level, the percentage of STEM degrees received by blacks in 2009 was 7.5 percent, down from 8.1 percent in 2001.
The numbers are striking in certain fields. In 2009, African-Americans received 1 percent of degrees in science technologies, and 4 percent of degrees in math and statistics. Out of 5,048 PhDs awarded in the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, 89 went to African-Americans–less than 2 percent.
Several factors are cited by scientists, educators and students. One is a self-defeating perception that STEM is too hard. Also mentioned are a lack of role models and mentors, pressure to earn money quickly, and discouraging academic environments.
In the world of atoms and numbers, does the color of the person who studies them really matter?
Many of America’s technology giants say, yes. Merck has funded tens of millions of dollars in United Negro College Fund scholarships. Bayer has a special focus on recruiting and promoting minorities. Technology giants such as Boeing, General Electric and Xerox support organizations dedicated to raising black STEM participation.
Their motivation is simple math. If bright and capable students’ talents go undeveloped, “this represents a loss for both the individual and society,” the National Science Board said in a 2010 report.
Some 16 percent of all U.S. undergraduates major in natural science or engineering, compared with 25 percent in Europe, 38 percent in South Korea and 47 percent in China, the report said.