11/18/2014 05:56 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Crisis and Opportunity

Co-authored with Carlos Grijalva and Maggie Werner-Washburne

Pressured by civil rights groups, Google released a report earlier this year on the racial diversity of its workforce. The findings were disheartening. The technology company's technical staff was 60% white, 1% black and 2% Latino. Other tech companies, including Facebook, Apple and Yahoo, followed Google's lead and issued reports--with similarly low numbers of minority engineers.

The paucity of Latino and black engineers in Silicon Valley is symptomatic of a persistent and mostly unaddressed problem in higher education: the lack of students of color in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Of the 35,360 science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded by our nation's colleges and universities in 2012, 43% went to white students, 3% to black, 4% to Latino and 0.2% to Native American, according to the National Science Foundation. The remaining 37% were earned by foreign students. These percentages have remained largely unchanged since the late 1970s.

The underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields sets up a large hurdle to future economic growth in the United States. Demographers predict that in less than 30 years, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos will collectively constitute the majority of the U.S. population. The economy, meantime, will increasingly depend on technological innovation to spur and sustain growth--and that means degrees in STEM fields will be in greater demand. As matters now stand, only a small minority of Latinos and blacks will be qualified to take these jobs, so who will fill them? The nation's colleges and universities urgently need to do more to steer minorities toward STEM fields and graduate them in greater numbers.

While there are factors unrelated to college--such as being first in family to pursue a college degree--that play a role, institutions of higher education bear a lot of the blame for the lack of diversity in their STEM classes. A 2010 study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, found that chief among the reasons for minority students' attrition in STEM courses were few faculty role models like them and faculty unwillingness to invest time in helping them through rough academic patches. Other studies show that when students of color feel out of place or ostracized from the culture of a class or lab, their self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-identification as a scientist suffer. In addition, many minorities attend junior colleges and may arrive at four-year schools without having gained research experience critical for success in STEM graduate programs.

None of these flaws is beyond the ability of colleges and universities to fix. But higher education should do more. One of the best ways to motivate minority students to succeed in STEM fields is to offer them extracurricular opportunities to explore their chosen major through participation in research programs, work on a professor's research project, peer study groups or social networks that provide information and strategies for navigating a STEM major. The Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), a nonprofit organization with chapters on 115 campuses across the country, is active in promoting these opportunities by providing programs for both faculty and students alike.

There are other ways that colleges and universities can graduate more black and Latino engineers and scientists. They should help allay financial pressures that keep many minority students off campus working rather than in labs investigating. Especially in highly selective research institutions, they should make sure that introductory courses promote STEM talent rather than screen it out. And they should push for more faculty mentoring and professional guidance for students of color in physical science, computer science, mathematics and engineering graduate programs. The California Alliance for Graduate Education and Professoriate, led by UC Berkeley, UCLA, Caltech and Stanford, is already doing this but other schools should join this effort.

Google and other tech giants know that to increase the diversity of their workforces, they will have to root out and eliminate the hidden biases and prejudices that shape their hiring practices and work environments. But they cannot graduate more minority engineers to enlarge the pool of talent. That's the job of the nation's colleges and universities. It's past time that they get on with it.

About the authors:
George Sanchez is Vice Dean for College Diversity at University of Southern California. Carlos Grijalva, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, is associate dean of the Graduate Division at UCLA. Maggie Werner-Washburne, Regent's Professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico, is president of the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).