Legislation Would Increase Minority Access to STEM Degrees

Legislation would provide grants to colleges that graduated more blacks and Hispanics with STEM degrees.

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Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson announced new legislation Tuesday that would expand the number of underrepresented minority students studying science, technology, engineering, and math in college.

The "Broadening Participation in STEM Education Act" would allow the National Science Foundation to award grants to colleges in order to "increase the number of students from underrepresented minority groups receiving degrees in [STEM] fields, and to recruit, retain, and advance STEM faculty members from underrepresented minority groups."

[Experts: 'Weed Out' Classes are Killing STEM Achievement]

Johnson, ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has pushed similar legislation through the House twice before, but both bills died in the Senate. She said she realizes she's facing an uphill battle again this time.

"I'm determined to get it done," she says. "I'd be less than honest if I didn't say this is a very difficult environment [to get legislation passed], but this is too important to wait for a comfortable environment. We cannot afford to slacken our pace. We're pressing forth because of the importance of these areas."

The picture surrounding minority students in the STEM workforce isn't a pretty one: Although more than 10 percent of the U.S. labor force is black, African-Americans make up just 4.5 percent of the engineering workforce. Latinos make up 14 percent of the labor force but just 5.5 percent of the engineering workforce. Just 12 percent of engineers are women, even though they make up nearly half of all American workers.

[White House Report: More Women Needed in STEM]

In higher education, it's not much better. In 2009, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Alaskan natives earned just 9 percent of engineering doctorate degrees, 11 percent of engineering master's degrees, and 13 percent of engineering bachelor's degrees.

Johnson says that when she tours academic circles, she's discouraged by the lack of diversity.

"No matter where we go, when we look at the researchers, we don't see America," she says. "We might not be there now, but we can do it … I'll do what I can to push forward not for minorities, but for our nation. We need help. I'm convinced we have the minds available, but they need to be focused."

Irving McPhail, CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, an organization that worked with Johnson on the bill, says it's designed to make the STEM workforce "reflect the demographic realities of America."

[Read an Op-Ed About STEM Education by Irving McPhail]

Carlos Rodriguez, principal research scientist at American Institute Research, says that without legislative intervention, minority students are destined to make up only about 15 percent of STEM bachelor's graduates.

"Across STEM fields, there's been a very narrow band [of minorities] graduating, between 13 and 16 percent [of all STEM degrees]. That has stayed pretty much constant since 1992," he says. "This bill will move the needle and will move us in the right direction. We've got to get behind supporting it."

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