Role Models and Mentors for Black STEM Students: College Racial Climates

Inside Higher Education has a summary piece by Scott Jaschik on a national data analysis by Cornell Ph.D. student, Joshua Price:

A constant theme of reports about math and science is that the United States will have a large enough supply of scientists only if it does a better job of attracting black and Latino scientists …. Many of these reports note that large shares of black and Latino high school students don’t receive the kind of preparation they should in math and science.

This lack of preparation and/or related role model and mentoring factors likely extends to the college level, as Price’s research clearly suggests:

The study finds a statistically significant relationship between black students who plan to be a science major having at least one black science instructor as freshmen and then sticking to their plans. The finding could be significant because many students (in particular members of under-represented minority groups) who start off as science majors fail to continue on that path — so a change in retention of science majors could have a major impact.

Jaschik continues:

Price analyzed data on more than 157,000 students who enrolled as first-time freshmen in one of the 13 four-year universities in Ohio between 1998 and 2002 and who said that they intended to major in science, technology or mathematics. He then examined whether those black students who had a black instructor … were more likely to stick with their planned STEM major than those who did not. For purposes of the study, “instructor” had to be the person — typically but not always a professor — who was responsible for a course.

Price found no gender effects, but he did find another significant effect, after controlling for various factors:

… black students who had at least one black science instructor as freshmen were statistically more likely to continue on as STEM majors than those who did not. … black STEM students were more likely than white students to end up in STEM courses or sections led by black instructors, again suggesting a key role for these black science professors. … In an interview, Price … [said] that the impact of having a black instructor could come from a “role model effect” or from a mentoring effect.

Neither the article nor the study mentions the numerous other factors that enter into this institutional-racism reality in our historically white colleges and universities. There is the problem of the hostile racial climate that scattered evidence suggests is strong in departments where there have historically been few students of color. This doubtless greatly affects the persistence of many. (To my knowledge, there is no systematic research on variation in this climate by department in historically white institutions–another area for research if you looking for an important project.) Still, our field research on several historically white universities shows that it is a common problem generally for black students, undergraduate and graduate.

Researchers have also shown that this hostile racial climate also affects, often greatly shapes, the reality of too few faculty of color in most departments, not just so-called STEM departments. Since faculty of color often find these historically white campuses difficult places to teach, indeed to be at, it is not surprising that students of color frequently find few faculty of color there. Research indicates, again and again, that the U.S. higher educational system is still fundamentally and deeply racist in its structures and everyday operations. No post-racial America there.

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