4Access and Motivation

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The science and engineering workforce in the United States—workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in an S&E occupation—is drawn from undergraduates at our nation’s postsecondary institutions and immigrants who arrive for graduate study, postdoctorate fellowships, or work in STEM. The base from which we can draw underrepresented minorities for S&E, therefore, is the pool of underrepresented minorities who are enrolled in postsecondary institutions and who plan to complete a four-year degree.

This pool of underrepresented minorities and women enrolled in post-secondary institutions has increased. As shown in Figure 4-1, total undergraduate enrollment across all fields for each racial/ethnic minority group increased between 1976 and 2008. As the National Center for Education Statistics (2010) reports: 1

Line graph depicting the shifts in undergraduate enrollment in postsecondary institutions by race and ethnicity, selected years from 1976 to 2004


Fall undergraduate enrollment in postsecondary institutions, by race/ ethnicity, 1976–2004. SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities (NCES 2007-039), Table A23.1, September (more...)

  • Asians/Pacific Islanders had the fastest rate of increase between 1976 and 2008 (561 percent); their enrollment increased from 169,000 to 1,118,000.
  • During the same time period, Hispanic enrollment increased from 353,000 to 2,103,000, a 495 percent increase.
  • American Indian/Alaska Native enrollment increased from 70,000 to 176,000, a 151 percent increase.
  • Black enrollment increased from 943,000 to 2,269,000, a 140 percent increase.

The enrollment for each minority group rose at a faster rate than that of whites, which increased from 7,740,000 to 10,339,000, a 34 percent increase during this period. The increase in Hispanic enrollment, in particular, reflects a significant growth in the Hispanic segment of the population generally and is projected to continue strong into the future.

Similarly, females of all groups showed an enrollment increase and actually surpassed the percentage of males enrolled as undergraduates in 1980. Black students had the largest difference between male and female enrollments. Black females accounted for 64 percent of the total undergraduate black enrollment. American Indian/Alaska Native females made up 60 percent of the total American Indian/Alaska Native student enrollment, and Hispanic females made up 58 percent of the total Hispanic student enrollment. White females made up 56 percent of the white student enrollment.

As a result of these trends over three decades, underrepresented minorities—African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Alaska Natives—now comprise more than one-quarter (27 percent) of total undergraduates. Though this does fall short of the underrepresented minority proportion in the college age (18- to 24-year old) population (33.2 percent), this is a significant achievement of historical proportions that has its origins in the migration of African Americans to the North during and after World War II, the rapid growth of the U.S. Hispanic population during the past two decades, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and its focus on education, and efforts—including affirmative action, financial aid, and institutional efforts to increase diversity—to increase the access of under-represented minorities and economically disadvantaged students to higher education that date from the 1960s and 1970s.2

At the same time that underrepresented minority enrollment has been increasing, the proportion of underrepresented minority freshmen at four-year colleges and universities who aspire to major in STEM fields has increased and, as seen in the HERI data discussed earlier, is and has been since the early 1990s similar to that of whites and Asian Americans. These positive trends provide encouragement that further efforts to stimulate post-secondary enrollment and aspirations to major in STEM should increase the number of underrepresented minorities who are prepared for college, major in STEM, and complete a degree in a STEM field.

There are two important caveats to this picture that indicate areas requiring additional effort. First, the HERI data focus on students at four-year institutions. Underrepresented minorities at two-year institutions, who comprise more than half of all underrepresented minorities enrolled in post-secondary institutions, have a lower propensity to major in and complete degrees in STEM than those who begin at four-year institutions. Second, those underrepresented minorities who do begin at four-year institutions and aspire to major in STEM, as we have seen, have a lower four- and five-year completion rate than whites and Asian Americans.

Clearly preparation matters, as discussed in the previous chapters. Efforts to provide academic, social, and professional support matter as well, as we will discuss in the next chapter. Here we focus on the transition from secondary to postsecondary school, a time when information, motivation, and financial support are critical to aspiring to college enrollment, majoring in STEM, and sustaining interest once enrolled. These efforts can further augment the pool from which we can develop new underrepresented minority scientists and engineers.


Information about options and opportunities in higher education is critical. Improved information can increase the awareness of students and their families so they can best prepare and apply for postsecondary education. Many students, including underrepresented minorities and especially those who are first-generation undergraduates, have insufficient information about educational and career opportunities and options at critical decision points in middle and high school. Most students, in fact, have few opportunities to learn about these options unless institutions—schools, churches, community groups, youth organizations—make an effort to provide role models and information. The Spellings Commission focused in this regard on college awareness activities during high school, noting that “many students and parents don’t understand the steps needed to prepare for college,” and there need to be resources for early and ongoing college awareness activities, academic support, and college planning and financial aid application assistance.”3 Similarly, a recent report of the College Board argued that, especially to encourage more first-generation students to apply to college, the postsecondary admissions process needs to be simplified and clarified.4

The college admissions process is also a critical gatekeeper for post-secondary education. Since the 1950s, the nation’s ongoing dialogue and struggle over civil rights has focused squarely on admissions to college, graduate school, and professional programs. This is critically important to underrepresented minority participation in postsecondary education and, by extension to postsecondary STEM, and we cannot place a strong enough emphasis on it. The continued ability of colleges and universities to act affirmatively to ensure inclusion of underrepresented minorities in diverse campus environments will affect the quality of education and the associated opportunities that go with it for these students. In this vein, we must continue to follow experiments in college admissions and assess the differential outcomes of strategies that allow explicit consideration of race or ethnicity in admissions or those that do not—such as those that provide admission to the top 10 percent of a graduating class—but seek a similar goal. Fortunately, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of American Universities, and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering have been closely and carefully following civil rights in academia and the legal cases focused on them through a series of workshops, consultations with institutions, an important report—Standing Our Ground,5 and a new handbook—Navigating a Complex Landscape to Foster Greater Faculty and Student Diversity in Higher Education.6 We strongly urge AAAS, AAU, and NACME to continue their efforts and institutions of higher education to participate in the ongoing conversations and consultations they are engaged in.

Finally, underrepresented minority students should be encouraged to attend institutions of higher education that are a solid match for their levels of preparation and motivation. Richard Sander introduced the “mismatch hypothesis” in 2004 which suggests that minority students are less successful as science majors when they are placed in institutions with academic standards that far exceed their preparation. Bowen and Bok (1998) refuted the “mismatch” hypothesis in their analysis of college and beyond data on undergraduates. They found that attending a more selective institution is associated with a higher likelihood of earning a professional or doctoral degree, leads on average to greater career success as measured by annual income, and is, in most instances, correlated with greater involvement (taking leadership positions) in a broad range of civic activities.7

The “mismatch” hypothesis has been challenged also by affirmative action advocates and researchers (e.g., Alon and Tienda, 2004) who report that minority students thrive in selective schools despite their disadvantaged starting lines. They conclude that the likelihood of graduation increases as the selectivity of the institution attended rises.

Espenshade and Radford (2009), after extensive research, noted that underrepresented minority students at selective institutions graduate at lower rates than do white and Asian students and end up with grade point averages in the lower ranks of their class. However, they concurred with Bowen and Bok that the advantages associated with attending a more selective institution trump lower class rank (Box 4-1).8

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BOX 4-1

No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal. Although attending a more selective college negatively affects students’ relative GPAs when students’ ability is held constant, the literature suggests that the benefits in terms of educational attainment, (more...)

A large number of underrepresented minority students “undermatch.” As discussed in Box 4-2, William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson in their recent examination of college completion found that many African American and Hispanic students attend institutions that are less demanding than they are qualified to attend. This has implications for eventual completion because selectivity of an institution is positively correlated with completion.9 At the same time, however, the phenomenon of “overmatching,” that is, placing a student in an environment that is too challenging based on previous preparation, is equally a concern. The latter may be addressed by matching a student with a more appropriate institution or by ensuring that, in the more challenging environment, programs are put in place to accelerate the preparation of motivated students. In this latter situation, senior administrators must actively endorse and support minority programs in order to promote faculty buy-in; respected faculty in STEM fields must act as mentors, advisors, role models, and advocates; and the culture of the institution must insist that faculty and others hold everyone to the same high standards and that there be an expectation of success, as measured by both completion and high performance.10

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BOX 4-2

Aiming High. Student’s choices of where to apply to college are enormously important. A surprisingly large number of students—especially those from poor families and those who are African American or Hispanic—”undermatch.” (more...)


Academic preparation and admission to a postsecondary institution are the important prerequisites for careers in STEM. Many underrepresented minorities may come from academic backgrounds that, on average, provide less effective preparation for STEM courses than their majority counterparts. Because factors such as the number of years of science and math in high school, high school grades, and standardized test scores in math are positively correlated with choosing to major in science (Maple and Stage 1991; Ware and Lee 1988), many minority students start college less likely to pursue science than their majority classmates. In fact, many of the successful interventions have been designed to address these issues directly by providing opportunities to increase mathematical and analytical abilities (e.g., Treisman 1992; Bonous-Hammarth 2000).

The next step is to encourage an aspiration to major in STEM. Outreach efforts from government agencies, industry, and postsecondary institutions can all work to raise interest and awareness of STEM careers in all students, including underrepresented minorities. NACME has argued that this should begin very early in elementary school, urging that businesses “form partnerships with K-12 schools to promote STEM careers and education to underrepresented minority students, including providing STEM employees to serve as role models and mentors, offering on-site internships to students and teachers, and providing access to the latest equipment and software.”11 The same can be said for federal science agencies as well.

Postsecondary institutions have a role in outreach as well. In their evaluation of the NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, Clewell et al. (2005) describe the kinds of high school outreach activities undertaken by institutions with LSAMP funding:

More than half of the Alliances also offer high school outreach activities. This includes LSAMP students visiting local high schools to give a science demonstration, tutoring high school students in STEM subjects, helping out at high school science fairs, and disseminating LSAMP recruitment material to high school staff members and students. In some instances LSAMP collaborates in the outreach efforts of other STEM intervention programs that specifically target high school students. Examples include female LSAMP students visiting high schools to talk to girls about math, LSAMP students participating in a precollege initiative where high school students are invited onto the college campus to learn about science disciplines, and science faculty visiting high schools on Saturdays to expose students to science professions and activities.12

There are other NSF programs that provide outreach from post secondary institutions to K-12 schools, including the GK-12 Program, Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences Program, and Mathematics and Science Partnerships. Some are not targeted directly at underrepresented minority students, but they may benefit them. The National Institutes of Health has additional undergraduate programs focused on underrepresented minorities, such as the Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program, which also includes a high school outreach component.13

Mathematics and science summer programs, such as the Upward Bound programs (part of the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO14 program), provide another means for developing the interest of high school students in these fields. These programs provide an opportunity for students to take summer courses in mathematics and science, engage in research for the first time, and raise awareness of both STEM careers and the steps necessary along the pathway to them. At present the TRIO Upward Bound Program has been found to be “not performing” by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which noted that “Interim findings from an evaluation of the Upward Bound program, released in 2004, indicated that Upward Bound had not been effective in increasing the overall college enrollment rates of its participants.”15 Several members of this study committee personally benefited from working with the Upward Bound program and found it to be a key experience for motivating their interest in pursuing a STEM education in college and beyond. Given the potential benefit of this program, we strongly hope and expect that the U.S Department of Education will take the necessary steps to improve program efficiency and effectiveness.

To complement efforts to raise awareness of STEM careers generally, counseling in middle and high schools can also provide important and timely information in a practical way about what is academically necessary—in high school and in college—to pursue STEM careers. This counseling can also focus on preparing students and families for their initial interactions with higher education institutions, including the application and financial aid processes. Clewell et al. (2005), in reviewing the relevant literature, found:

There is a great deal of research to establish a strong relationship between career development and student background, particularly socioeconomic status (Hill, Pettus, and Hedin 1990; Mestre and Robinson 1983; Rolle 1977). Scientists tend to come from well-educated white families (Grandy 1994; Pearson 1986). Lack of knowledge and familiarity on the part of underrepresented minorities in terms of what constitutes careers in STEM may contribute to their limited presence in these fields (Hill, Pettus, and Hedin 1990). Knowledge about STEM careers and exposure to scientists and engineers have been found to increase minority students’ commitment to a STEM major, degree aspirations, and commitment to a STEM career (Good, Halpin, and Halpin 2001; Rolle 1977; Wyer 2001).16

Unfortunately, academic and career counseling is often weak in predominantly minority secondary schools. Moreover, it can be counterproductive, steering minority students into less demanding courses and programs when they should be challenging students by encouraging them to take the highest level courses they are prepared for.


Providing information and creating awareness about STEM education and careers are critical, but generating real motivation to pursue a STEM career requires something more. The kinds of research experiences embedded in summer programs, such as the Upward Bound program, are one way to ignite a passion for science. Another way is to appeal to the personal interests of students and their families. As shown in Box 4-3, a strong case can be made to all students that they can pursue a science career and give back to their families and communities at the same time.

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BOX 4-3

Why African American Students Should Major in Biomedical Research. There are statistics that are profoundly disturbing. About thirty years ago, an NSF report showed that less than 1 percent of the PhD degrees in science, engineering, and mathematics fields (more...)

Willie Pearson found, in his study of African American PhD chemists, that reading the biographies or biographical sketches of eminent African American scientists influenced a number of the chemists he interviewed to pursue science careers. The biographies were typically published in minority-focused magazines or reference books. Pearson contends that most American historians and sociologists have largely ignored African American scientists in general and chemists in particular. He recommends that historians and sociologists of science research and publicize—in school curricula and popular magazines—the contributions and experiences of eminent African American scientists.17


Reflecting for a moment on the four approaches to improving under-represented minority participation in STEM presented in chapter 3 and in particular in Table 3-1, we can see each of these approaches at play here:

  • Improving Information for All Prospective College Students: The Spellings Commission recommendation to improve college awareness activities, aimed at all students, is important to and can benefit underrepresented minorities as well as others, including those in STEM.
  • Increasing the Pool of Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities: Efforts to ensure that underrepresented minorities have a fair chance at admission to a postsecondary institution they are qualified for have included policies ranging from affirmative action to admissions policies that offer automatic admission of top students to state institutions. Such policies are fundamentally important to increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities at the postsecondary level across all fields, including those in STEM as evidenced by the focus of AAAS and NACME on this issue.
  • Raising Awareness of STEM Careers: There is general concern about the participation of U.S. citizen students in STEM fields, regardless of race and ethnicity. One set of strategies for addressing this includes K-12 awareness activities, improved counseling for science and mathematics, and activities that promote STEM (e.g., the FIRST Robotics Competition). If these are made universally available, they will benefit underrepresented minorities as well as others.
  • Increasing STEM Outreach to Underrepresented Minorities: Programs such as the LSAMP high school outreach activities and the TRIO Upward Bound Program that specifically target underrepresented minorities in mathematics, science, and engineering are important means for reaching these groups and providing a pathway forward in STEM.



National Center for Education Statistics. 2010. Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities (NCES 2010-015), July 2010. http://nces​.ed.gov/pubs2007​/minoritytrends/ (accessed July 15, 2010).


W. G. Bowen and D. Bok. 1998. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 1–14.


A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education. A report of the commission appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (September 2006), p. 18–19.


College Board. 2009. Coming to Our Senses. New York, NY: College Board.


AAAS & NACME, Standing our Ground: A Guidebook for STEM Educators in the Post-Michigan Era, AAAS & NACME, October 2004.


AAAS & AAU, Navigating a Complex Landscape to Foster Greater Faculty and Student Diversity in Higher Education, 2010.


W. T. Bowen and Derek Bok. 1998. The Shape of the River. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


T. Espenshade, and A. Radford. 2009. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson. 2009. “Helping students finish the 4-year run.” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 8, 2009 (based on Bowen et al., Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).


R. Tapia, Minority students and research universities: How to overcome the mismatch, Chronicle of Higher Education 55(29):A72.


J. B. Slaughter. 2008. The “new” American dilemma: An open letter from Dr. John Brooks Slaughter, in NACME, Confronting the “New” American Dilemma: Underrepresented Minorities in Engineering: A Data-Based Look at Diversity, NACME, p. 8.


B. C. Clewell et al. 2005. Evaluation of the National Science Foundation Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program (Final Report). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, p. 23.


National Research Council. 2005. Assessment of NIH Minority Research Training Programs: Phase 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


TRIO programs are eight federal outreach and student services programs to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and persons with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to postbaccalaureate programs.


B. C. Clewell et al. 2005. Evaluation of the National Science Foundation Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program (Final Report). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, p. 39.


W. Pearson. 2005. Beyond Small Numbers: Voices of African American PhD Chemists. Stamford, CT: Jai Press, pp. 150–151.