In the STEM Fields, How Hispanic Students Pay for Their Education Affects Success

November 09, 2010

As the Hispanic population grows, such students are increasingly a linchpin in state and federal plans to get more students trained in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. But Hispanic students are also heavily underrepresented among degree recipients in those so-called STEM fields—and a new report from the Center for Urban Education provides some recommendations for changing that.

The report, "Tapping HSI-STEM Funds to Improve Latina and Latino Access to STEM Professions," argues that the Hispanic achievement gaps at the baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral levels exist in large part because of finances. "A lot of discussion about participation hasn't acknowledged that fact," said Lindsey E. Malcom, one of the co-authors and an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Hispanic students are more likely than their peers to come from low-income families—and that affects not only the competing demands on their time and money but also the types of institutions they are most likely to attend. Such students disproportionately start their college educations at community colleges and Hispanic-serving four-year colleges, which typically have lower costs. In turn, the researchers say, those institutions tend to have fewer resources, often leaving them less equipped to support students and to prepare them for graduate work.

The report recommends that colleges, particularly those with large Hispanic populations, work to better inform students of their full range of financial-aid options. It also pushes colleges to recognize that many Hispanic undergraduates are supporting themselves and are more likely to work and to put in longer hours than their peers.

"We're not saying that's a good or a bad strategy," said Alicia C. Dowd, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Center for Urban Education. Rather, working students are a reality that more colleges need to structure their curriculum around. For example, the report says, colleges should incorporate research opportunities into the core curriculum in STEM fields, rather than making research an after-class option.

In particular, the report focuses on the improvements that Hispanic-serving institutions could make with new federal funds. Those four-year and community colleges, which receive a federal designation based on Hispanic students comprising at least 25 percent of their undergraduate student body, are eligible to compete for grants from a $100-million annual pool to improve STEM students' experiences. The grant money was allotted as part of the health-care reform package and is slated to be available through 2019.

Report Recommendations

The report recommends that, among other things, grant applicants use the funds to:

  • Increase support for intensive junior- and senior-year STEM research experiences.
  • Develop high-profile opportunities for community-college and four-year professors to work together to ensure that their colleges' curricula align.
  • Have community-college and four-year college faculty collaborate on research to develop the professional networks that create opportunities for STEM transfer students to access research laboratories and scientific studies at universities.
  • Support programs—such as bringing guest speakers to campus—to involve faculty in networking with scientists and engineers in the private sector.

The report is the third in a series, funded by the National Science Foundation, looking at ways to improve Hispanic students' access to and success in STEM fields. The full reports are available on the Center for Urban Education's Web site.