College policies keep minority students underrepresented in technical fields (opinion)
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College policies keep minority students underrepresented in technical fields (opinion)

In 1944, the CIA’s predecessor -- the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) -- released an internal how-to guide on the subject of sabotage. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual distinguishes between traditional violent sabotage and simple sabotage, which is “based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions [or] adopt a non-cooperative attitude.”

In order to aid the war effort in Nazi-occupied Europe, a simple saboteur “should discover what types of faulty decisions and non-cooperation are normally found in his kind of work and … devise his sabotage so as to enlarge that ‘margin for error.’”

The field manual provides a litany of examples of simple sabotage, from letting tools grow dull to refraining from cleaning machinery and even forgetting to put toilet paper in washrooms. But the highlight is the section on “General Interference with Organizations”:

  1. Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  2. Make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  3. When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible -- never fewer than five.
  4. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  5. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  6. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision.

And if the potential saboteur happens to be a manager:

  1. Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products.
  2. Multiply procedures and clearances … See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

Faculty members and administrators at higher education institutions are familiar with such tactics. And when deployed at colleges and universities, pertaining to the socioeconomic mobility of America’s underrepresented minorities, they can be fairly called sabotage.

***

Never before have colleges and universities been more aware of the myriad challenges faced by Black and brown Americans and our shared responsibility to combat systemic racism. Much of the attention in the past year has been on admissions. Selective institutions struggle to enroll classes that mirror the overall population. According to the Hechinger Report, “15 state flagships had at least a 10-point gap between the percentage of Black public high school graduates in their states in 2019 and the Black share of freshmen enrolled that fall.” At the University of Maryland at College Park, the gap was 24 points for Black students and 7 points for Latino students (14 percent of high school graduates, 7 percent of UMD freshmen).

The pan-bandonment of standardized tests for the current admissions cycle has improved matters. We already knew that jettisoning the SAT and ACT would increase first-time enrollment of underrepresented minorities by about 10 percent. And we’ve seen that much and more in just one year. Harvard increased Black admitted students as a percentage of total admissions from 14.8 to 18 percent; USC went from 6 to 8.5 percent; NYU from 27 percent underrepresented minorities to 29 percent. NYU hired 50 new readers in an attempt to fulfill the promise of holistic review without the distracting glare of quantified test scores.

The other areas where we’ve seen rapid changes are faculty diversity, new courses and programs, and cultural centers. Colleges have been busy reacting to student demands by announcing new degrees in African American studies and Latinx studies, adding diverse faculty, and adding or increasing investment in centers and programs that support diverse students.

But these good intentions run up against the hard reality that all postsecondary programs aren’t created equal; different majors lead to very different economic outcomes. Of the 25 most remunerative majors, two are economics and business, and the rest are scientific and technical. (Note: while higher education institutions continue to call them STEM, like DeVry University president Tom Monahan, I’m trying to wean myself from the habit, because the only employers who understand STEM are florists. Employers want candidates with specific technical skills for tech jobs that are projected to grow at twice the rate of other occupations. And by the way, as Monahan also notes, they don’t think of themselves as employers. They’re businesses delivering products or services to customers.)

It’s true that income variance within a major is wide and that the top 25 percent of English majors make more than the bottom 25 percent of chemical engineers. But it’s also generally agreed upon that in terms of socioeconomic mobility, for most students, choice of major matters more than choice of college. Many schools are effectively two separate, segregated institutions: technical and scientific programs, and the rest.

As Jeff Selingo noted in College Unbound, higher education leaders are always touting the value of arts, humanities and social sciences programs to promote problem solving and critical thinking. But as Georgetown’s Tony Carnevale told him, “An engineering degree is the best problem-solving degree in the curriculum. The more specific and technical the degree, the better graduates do out of the gate.”

So while most Georgetown students (and students at the other 199 selective institutions) will do fine regardless of their choice of major, in today’s America, underrepresented minorities completing nontechnical degrees at nonselective schools, which 90-plus percent of students attend, are attempting to launch careers with three strikes. (And if they have substantial student loan debt, with four.)

Sadly, the percentage of Black graduates in technical programs is declining. Whereas Black students once captured nearly 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees in technical majors, today it’s only 7 percent. Latino students are also underrepresented: 12 percent of technical graduates versus 15 percent of all graduates.

These numbers are scary not only in terms of racial justice and socioeconomic mobility, but also for what they say about the future of technology. Blacks and Latinos are already underrepresented in the tech workforce. In some of the most important areas, like clean energy and artificial intelligence, the shortfall is dramatic. And if underrepresented minorities aren’t sufficiently represented as these technologies race forward, the results may exacerbate or establish new forms of systemic racism.

In response to the national awakening to systemic racism, colleges and universities plan to usher many more Black and brown students in the door. But for far too many, the passage won’t lead to technical programs or degrees. If colleges and universities truly cared about underrepresented minorities, they’d take a hard look at the barriers that are keeping Black and brown students from entering and succeeding in their highest-value programs.

***

The problem isn’t lack of interest. Underrepresented minorities are just as interested in technical programs. But completion rates are much lower. While 58 percent of white students who start technical degrees end up completing them, only 43 percent of Latino and 34 percent of Black students do. The main reason is switching majors. As UT Austin and Florida International University researchers found in 2019, “the probability of a Black student switching majors rather than persisting in the [technical] major field is about 19 percentage points higher than the probability of a white student; the corresponding probability for a Latino student is about 13 percentage points higher than that of a white student.”

Here are four reasons why Black and brown students are more likely to switch than fight their way through:

  1. Outdated prerequisites

Many scientific and technical courses list prerequisites that underrepresented minority students are less likely to have taken in high school and that have little to no bearing on the actual subject matter. Calculus is a primary culprit. And while it’s true that completion of calculus in high school is traditionally a strong predictor of technical degree completion, departments and faculty that continue to insist on calculus as a prerequisite are perpetuating a very vicious circle.

  1. Weed-out courses

As former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift noted recently, “Reason gazillion we don’t have more STEM grads? Daughter (currently has a 4.0 in her math major) being told Computer Science req’d course is ‘impossible’ -- peers say avg for first exam is 15 percent.” Similar results are found in intro to CS, calculus (25 percent of students who take Calculus I at a research university receive a D or F; 23 percent receive a C), precalculus (only 50 percent of students who enroll in precalculus make it through to Calculus I), or developmental math at a community college (30 percent successfully complete, and only 20 percent of those go on to complete a college-level math course). According to President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, most scientific and technical degree programs operate according to the tradition that there are those who have the ability to succeed, there are those who don’t, and the department has the wisdom to know the difference. A disproportionately large percentage of those who are “weeded out” are underrepresented minorities.

  1. Boring lectures

Nearly all of these outdated prerequisites and weed-out courses are delivered the way they were traditionally taught: to less diverse populations in large lecture classes. While some of this is a product of physical plant -- colleges have too many lecture theaters and not enough smaller classrooms for technical classes -- there’s plenty of evidence that active learning models (e.g., classroom discussions, group projects, cooperative learning, student evaluation of each other’s work) contribute mightily to student outcomes. By deploying active learning across the curriculum, Ponce Health Sciences University has dramatically improved technical program completion and board passage rates for a majority minority population. New products like Chem101 simplify the process of transforming lectures into active learning environments. Nonetheless, studies indicate that most math and science faculty continue to lecture at students. In engineering, 82 percent of faculty are aware of the benefits of evidence-based teaching strategies, but only 47 percent self-report having adopted any.

  1. Nonnative English speakers

In addition to being uninspiring, far too many scientific and technical instructors are nonnative English speakers. While universities have large populations of international graduate students in these fields, relying on them as instructors or to lead discussion groups for prerequisite or weed-out courses contributes to switching.

I’m trying to think of a term that connotes how traditions and legacy processes continuously produce dire outcomes for underrepresented minorities. Let me think …

How about systemic racism?

***

In undertaking to combat systemic racism, colleges and universities have focused on external systems where they are not the prime racist mover. The irony is that higher education’s own systems and traditions are the primary barrier keeping minority students from the most valuable programs. If colleges and universities were serious about systemic racism, they’d look in the mirror.

Making changes to prerequisites, weed-out courses and instruction in scientific and technical programs would require circumventing departmental committees, procedures and proper “channels.” What a headache that would be! Per the OSS field manual, inaction in this regard is simple sabotage.

Turns out it’s worse than this. Rather than making fundamental changes to traditions and processes, colleges and universities have focused on faculty diversity, new courses and programs, and cultural centers. But increasing investment in these areas simply makes it more likely that Black and brown students switch out of computer science and engineering to majors that are less likely to provide a comparable socioeconomic boost. The OSS field manual wouldn’t pass this off as simple sabotage. It’s the more traditional kind.



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