Minorities Need STEM Role Models Too

Race, ethnicity, and culture will play increasingly important roles in STEM fields, an expert says.

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Nearly 75 percent of children born by 2030 will be people of color. By 2050 the majority of school-aged children will be Latino, and 74 percent of the labor force will be Latino in the coming years, experts said during a discussion at the U.S. News STEM Solutions 2012 summit Thursday in Dallas.

This shift from minority to majority means that race, ethnicity, and culture will play a more important role in science, technology, engineering and math fields, said Antonio Flores, CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

"It's obvious that the future of America depends on how well we educate this driving, fast-paced population," Flores said.

Poverty is one of the more debilitating barriers minority students face, especially in Native American communities, said Carrie Billy, CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Association. Seven of the 10 poorest counties in the country are in Indian country, Billy noted.

"It's not a downturn, it's generation after generation after generation of extreme poverty that leads to depression and stress, and the inability to even want to go on to get a higher education," Billy said.

Education can help lift minority communities out of poverty, said Lezli Baskerville, CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

"When African American women have obtained degrees they have been able to move out of the lower class," Baskerville said, noting one in five African American women over the age of 25 have a college degree.

Lack of role models within their own families is another major obstacle minority students face in graduating from high school and advancing to higher education, said Carlos Rodriguez, principal research scientist at the American Institutes for Research.

"I don't worry about a [minority] student that comes from a middle class or upper class family," Rodriguez said.

Instead, educators should focus their attention on students who may be the first in their families to graduate high school, much less attend college, he said.

And business, government, and foundations should steer more funds to the institutions these students typically attend, said Flores, with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

"MIT, Cal Tech, and Ivy League colleges are not where our Latinos, Native Americans, and African American students are at."