05/16/2014 11:25 am ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

Increasing Diversity in the STEM Pipeline

If the United States seeks to remain competitive in a global economy, it is essential that colleges and universities graduate more students majoring in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The current situation is serious: 60 percent of U.S. employers report difficulty finding qualified workers to fill vacant positions at their firms. STEM education in the U.S. should be a top national priority not only for its economic implications, but also for the health of the American people, national and homeland security, and the quality of the environment.

STEM graduates will find a very welcoming employment environment. STEM jobs currently comprise 20 percent of all jobs in the U.S., and the Bureau for Labor Statistics predicts STEM jobs will grow 55 percent faster than non-STEM jobs over the next 10 years. Those employees in STEM fields typically experience lower unemployment rates and higher salary levels than their same-degree counterparts in non-STEM fields. The jobs are highly coveted: the website CareerCast reported that nine out of the 10 best jobs in 2014 were in STEM fields.

Unfortunately, many women and underrepresented minorities are missing out on careers in STEM fields. There is a significant gap in the representation of these groups in the STEM workforce. A recent estimate indicates that 28 percent of science and engineering workers in the U.S. are women, even though they comprise almost half of the U.S. workforce. Similarly, while underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprise 26 percent of the general population, only 10 percent of U.S. workers are in science and engineering.

What can colleges and universities do to increase the size and diversity of the STEM workforce?

  • Partner with high schools to enhance high school students' academic preparation in the STEM fields. According to 2011 data, only 45 percent of high school graduates are ready for college courses in math, and only 30 percent are ready for college courses in science. Due to the rigor and intensity of STEM courses, students often find the courses particularly challenging. Collaboration between high school teachers and college faculty on science and math curricula will enhance the academic preparation of students and reduce the need for remedial courses. Once on campus, strong academic support services, including peer tutors, can directly benefit those students challenged by the coursework.
  • Promote interactive forms of pedagogy on campus which are conducive to student engagement and deep learning. As advocated by the STEM Education Coalition, effective STEM education is hands-on and uses inquiry-based learning activities, including research opportunities, internships and field experiences. Such an educational environment is often found at private colleges and helps to explain the Council of Independent Colleges' recent finding ("Strengthening the STEM Pipeline: The Contributions of Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges") that small and mid-sized independent colleges are producing a disproportionate number of graduates in STEM fields.
  • Increase access to mentors, speakers and role models in the STEM fields. Educators can provide students with access to mentors from industry who are willing to work with students interested in a STEM career. Speakers can actively encourage students, especially first-generation college students, to expand their consideration of careers and can talk about opportunities in STEM disciplines. Female and underrepresented faculty in STEM fields can serve as very visible role models. Mentors, speakers and faculty can all personally reflect and communicate success stories of women and minorities who became noted scientists, technology specialists, engineers and mathematicians.

The United States is currently facing a major workforce challenge, and, unless addressed, the problem will only be exacerbated in the years to come. STEM graduates are currently playing a critical role in U.S. competitiveness, and these graduates are central to our future economic prosperity and well-being. As we build our 21st-century workforce, we need to adopt a multifaceted educational approach to expand the size of the STEM pipeline by intentionally recruiting and educating a talented, diverse workforce.