ADVERTISEMENT
the-edge.png

Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: What It Takes to Encourage Underrepresented Students to Pursue Tech Majors and Careers

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Too many graduates don’t get a crack at tech careers. Colleges could change that.

Black and Hispanic employees remain underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and math work force. That includes the fast-growing — and well-paying — computing sector. Women, too, are still underrepresented in fields like computing and engineering. And as a new analysis of employment and education data from the Pew Research Center highlights: “Current trends in STEM-degree attainment appear unlikely to substantially narrow these gaps.”

Don’t let Pew’s characteristically understated language obscure the message. That finding should be a wake-up call for anyone who cares about higher ed’s role in promoting economic equity and social mobility. Ditto for anyone who recognizes the stakes of seeing a sector as vital as tech continue to flourish while key segments of the population are left out.

Yes, a diverse work force is important in all fields, but tech (rightly) gets a lot of extra attention on that front because it plays such an influential role in how nearly all of us live our lives.

To be sure, hiring practices are responsible for a lot of the imbalance. Employers certainly could be doing more to make their recruiting more inclusive and to invest in the STEM pipeline. That’s one theme that came through loud and clear when I spoke recently with Michael Ellison, co-founder of CodePath.org, an educational nonprofit working to diversify the tech work force (more on him and it below).

Meanwhile, a few new corporate efforts stand out, including IBM’s collaboration with 13 HBCUs, which began last fall, and a Boeing partnership with the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, announced yesterday, that will include scholarships and other programs to help minority students pursue undergraduate and advanced degrees in STEM fields.

Of course employers can hire only from the talent market they’re seeing. That’s where higher ed needs to get a lot more active and creative. While over all, the number of STEM graduates from American colleges has been increasing since 2010, the Pew data show that:

  • Black and Hispanic adults are underrepresented among all STEM college graduates compared with their share in the general population.
  • Women aren’t earning computing or engineering degrees at anywhere near their levels of participation in higher education.

Basically, things are out of whack. That these aren’t new phenomena doesn’t make them any less important. If anything, it makes the situation more urgent.

Educators understand the barriers that keep women and minority students from pursuing or persisting in STEM majors. We’ve been swimming in op-eds and studies on this topic for years. Plenty of conferences and commissions, too. Personally, I’m still thinking about the teaching expert José Antonio Bowen’s comments on inclusive teaching from a few weeks ago, when he called out introductory courses in STEM as racist in their design and delivery. You’ll find that discussion around the 27-minute mark after you register here to watch the event free.

Yet many colleges have yet to change the way they operate.

That’s one reason I was so eager to talk with Ellison at CodePath.org for the latest episode of my podcast series Innovation That Matters. His nonprofit’s model offers several lessons for colleges and other organizations on how to create academic programs that are not only inclusive, but also powerful launchpads for students’ careers.

A growing number of colleges have created coding bootcamps or aligned themselves with commercial ones, but this model is quite different. The four-year-old CodePath layers into an academic department, bringing industry-relevant computer-science courses to the college, along with internship opportunities and mentoring from professionals in the field. It trains professors and TAs to teach its courses while its platform helps students connect with peers on other campuses.

For CodePath’s college partners, all of that comes free. The organization, which is a spinoff from a commercially focused training venture, covers some of its costs with the fees it charges companies to use CodePath for recruiting or to manage internship programs. Donors, many of them corporate, also support the organization.

In Silicon Valley circles, CodePath’s origin story — tied closely to Ellison’s life experience as a Black kid from rural Maine who experienced homelessness, turned successful tech entrepreneur — is part of its growing cachet. And in our conversation, he had a lot to say about how his personal journey shaped the organization’s approach, notably its focus on institutions that enroll a high proportion of low-income Black and Hispanic students. “I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to major in computer science,” he said. “I clearly had potential, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in tech.”

CodePath reveals what Ellison calls “invisible” talent and prepares students to succeed in competitive positions at top-tier employers.

The organization now partners with 50 colleges, deliberately working with the kinds of institutions that tech-company recruiters don’t typically visit. It’s got a list of 90 more colleges it would like to reach next.

CodePath’s model is worth emulating, whether in computer science or any number of other fields. First, it recognizes the role that an external organization can play within traditional academic programs. One way Ellison has made that work, he said, is by being very “professor centric” in dealing with departments. That can help smooth over resistance and reassure faculty members that they’ll get assistance with student support when they adopt CodePath courses.

The organization also intentionally aims to raise students’ aspirations, in part through a Black Excellence leadership series featuring successful engineers. The message for students, said Ellison, is to “go for that opportunity they don’t feel they’re qualified for, but that they should, because they actually are, and they just don’t realize it.”

The focus on institutions that aren’t necessarily high profile or on the radar of recruiters for major tech companies is another crucial element. CodePath recognizes that highly selective colleges don’t have a monopoly on talent, and if you want to develop a diverse pipeline, you have to go where you can find diversity.

Despite CodePath’s eschewing the so-called elites in higher ed, it is very focused on getting students jobs at the Facebooks and Googles of the world. I get why: It sees those sorts of employers as pacesetters for the industry and figures that if it can build credibility there, other tech employers will get on board, too. But tech jobs are pervasive in our economy, and all sorts of organizations — including local, state, and federal governments — could benefit from a strong pipeline of diverse talent. I hope CodePath or another organization, will soon take on that challenge.

Over the past year, we’ve heard (more than before) from colleges and companies about becoming more racially and ethnically inclusive. In the corporate sector, most of that talk revolves around hiring. Since building a bridge toward more inclusive hiring is CodePath’s raison d’être, I was also struck by how much Ellison emphasized the earlier stages of that process.

“If they’re interested in addressing structural racism,” he said, companies need to be offering more internships, more programs to inspire school-age students, and more opportunities for college students to engage directly with employees. Employers’ focus on recruiting alone is a reflection of “quarter to quarter” thinking, Ellison said. To have a real impact, “they just need to change the timeline that they’re thinking about this.”

Come to think of it, that’s pretty good advice for colleges, too.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.