Exclusion in STEM classrooms lead to lower graduation rates for minority students, UT study says

Kevin Lokuwaduge

Black and Latinx students pursuing careers in STEM face obstacles their white peers do not, making them more likely to leave those majors without receiving a degree, UT researchers say.

“Individuals that are employed in STEM occupations tend to have relatively high levels of income and social status,” said Catherine Riegle-Crumb, lead author of the study. “There’s reason to believe that racial ethnic minorities, particularly black and Latino students in this country, face obstacles in these fields that are not faced by their white peers.”

The study, published in February, found that STEM graduation rates are lower for black and Latinx students than those same students in other non STEM fields, said Riegle-Crumb, a STEM education and sociology professor.

“What we find is that (black and Latinx youth) are much less likely to actually attain a degree than their white peers,” Riegle-Crumb said. “They’re more likely to switch majors…and they're also more likely to just leave college altogether.”

Researchers studied black and Latinx students with socio-economic and educational backgrounds similar to that of their white peers, and found that neither of those variables explain the differences in graduation rates, Riegle-Crumb said.

While the researchers did not find conclusive evidence suggesting why this disparity exists, Kevin Cokley, an educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies professor, said students’ unconscious biases can contribute to the disparity by creating an unwelcoming nature in STEM classrooms. 

“(Students) probably aren’t thinking, ‘Well, okay, I’m going to intentionally exclude black students.’ I’m not suggesting that takes place,” Cokley said. “But, it’s sort of implicit. You gravitate to the people that you feel would be a good person to include in a group.”

Faculty can play a part in this exclusion as well, said Katherine Muenks, an educational psychology assistant professor.

“If a professor is giving a message that some people are naturally talented or intelligent and these people are the ones who are going to succeed, this can be particularly frightening if your identity doesn’t match that classic stereotype of what that person would look like,” Muenks said.

Riegle-Crumb said teachers and students should make an effort to include more minority students, especially because diversity and new ideas are important for scientific advancement.

“We have a ton of research that suggests that the best decision making and problem-solving comes from having diversity amongst people,” Cokley said. “When you have people from different backgrounds working on human problems then there’s more creativity in their ability to problem solve.”