Hispanic-Serving Institutions Are Best Path for Increasing Latino STEM Success, Report Says

April 05, 2010

To increase the number of Latino students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, a new report recommends that community colleges improve student-transfer access to programs in those disciplines, known as the STEM fields, at Hispanic-serving institutions.

Because community colleges educate nearly 60 percent of all Latino students in this country, the report concludes that strengthening transfer access is the best way to ensure that Latino students complete bachelor's degrees in the STEM fields.

The report, "Improving Transfer Access to STEM Bachelor's Degrees at Hispanic-Serving Institutions through the America Competes Act," is the latest of a series prepared by the University of Southern California's Center for Urban Education.

Alicia C. Dowd, one of the report's authors, said one of the main reasons Latino students are not transferring to four-year institutions is their high placement rate in remedial math courses. And once they are placed in those courses it is difficult for them to move on to transfer-level math courses, she said.

"We are losing many, many students there," she said.

The education of young Latinos is imperative, given the fact that Hispanic Americans are the fastest-growing and youngest demographic group in the country, the report says. Latinos are projected to make up nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2040, and as baby boomers age and retire, the nation will become increasingly dependent on Latinos.

Latinos need to be ready to enter the work force especially in the science and engineering fields, the report found. The National Science Board estimates that jobs in those fields will grow by 26 percent from 2004 to 2014, compared to a 13-percent growth rate in all other occupations.

The new report is part of a three-year project financed by the National Science Foundation in an effort to develop a Hispanic-Serving Institutions Undergraduate Initiative, authorized in the America Competes Act.

The report shows that the number of Latinos earning bachelor's degrees has increased over the last decade. However, the growth has occurred disproportionately in non-science fields, and in the social sciences and psychology rather than "harder" STEM disciplines.

From 1998 to 2007, there was a 64 percent increase in the number of degrees awarded to Latino students in fields other than science and engineering, but only a 50-percent increase in degrees in science and engineering. Most of the increase in the sciences occurred primarily in the social sciences and psychology, rather than in the biological sciences, engineering, computer sciences, and other science fields.

In 2007, Latinos earned 8.2 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering and science fields.

Among the reasons for the disparity, the report says, is that while Hispanic-serving colleges award 40 percent of all bachelor's degrees earned by Latino students, they prepare just 20 percent of Latino STEM graduates.

"Hispanic-serving institutions have been chronically underfunded in the distribution of federal STEM research dollars, which has limited their capacity to offer the undergraduate research opportunities that are known to attract and retain students in the sciences," the report's authors state.

Researchers also found disparities by type of institution for Latino students who first earned an associate degree then went on to complete a bachelor's degree in a STEM field, compared to peers who entered four-year programs without completing an associate degree first.

At academically selective and private institutions, 42 percent of those who entered with an associate degree went on to complete a bachelor's, compared with 59 percent of those who entered without one. The same trend was found at research universities, where 25.3 percent of those who entered with an associate degree completed a bachelor's, compared to 43.5 percent of those who entered without one.

At Hispanic-serving institutions, however, transfer students who entered with an associate degree were more likely to graduate than students who entered without one (32 percent, compared to 16.8 percent). The same was true at public four-year institutions (83 percent, as opposed to 62.9 percent).