Volume 89 Issue 41 | pp. 38-39
Issue Date: October 10, 2011

Education Bolsters Racial Equality

Getting a science or technology degree improves job prospects for everyone
Department: Government & Policy, Career & Employment
Keywords: education, STEM, jobs, race, ethnicity, statistics
Golden Ticket
Commerce Department data show that STEM degrees give underrepresented minorities an edge in the job market.
Credit: Faith Hayden/C&EN
Two African-American female students working at a school lab bench wearing protective eyeware
Golden Ticket
Commerce Department data show that STEM degrees give underrepresented minorities an edge in the job market.
Credit: Faith Hayden/C&EN

Regardless of their race or ethnic origin, people who major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics tend to get better jobs than students not in STEM programs. This is the main finding of the last report of a three-part study on STEM education and jobs by the Department of Commerce.

The report series, prepared by Commerce’s Economics & Statistics Administration (ESA), analyzed the STEM labor markets, gender disparities in STEM fields, and race and ethnic equality in STEM fields. The reports contend that increasing the number of STEM workers among currently underrepresented minority groups through education will help ensure America’s future as a global leader in technology and innovation.

“The purpose of these reports is to describe, in greater detail than has hitherto been available, the labor market outcomes of STEM workers—and thereby better inform discussion and debate about the availability of STEM workers,” says David Beede, a primary author of all three reports and ESA economist.

The latest report analyzes the racial and ethnic data on STEM education and jobs, the influx of foreign nationals, and earnings by race and Hispanic origin. Titled “Education Supports Racial and Ethnic Equality in STEM,” it is based on data from the 2009 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau. The STEM data in the report include information on individuals with degrees in computer science, mathematics, engineering, and the life and physical sciences, but excludes business, health care, and social science majors.

“ESA’s report shows the value of higher education as a gateway to high-quality, high-paying STEM jobs,” said Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank at the release of the report. “Our competitiveness as a nation depends on our ability to prepare America’s students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

The final ESA report in this series divides the population into six nonoverlapping groups by race and by Hispanic ethnicity. It combines all Hispanics into one group, regardless of other race factors, and then divides all non-Hispanic persons into the racial groups of white, black, Asian, American Indian, and Alaskan Native. Because of the small numbers of individuals in the last two groups, they are often combined as “all other.”

The data show some ethnic variability with respect to the different groups and their achievements in STEM education and jobs, but overall, they show most groups get degrees in STEM fields at about the same rate. Whites, Hispanics, and the “all other” group each receive 22% of their college degrees in STEM areas, and blacks receive 17% of degrees in those subjects. Asians, however, get 43% of their degrees in STEM areas.

Engineering and the physical and life sciences are the most popular fields of study for those getting STEM degrees, according to the report. Among all college graduates who earned STEM degrees and work in STEM jobs, 67–80% majored in these areas in 2009. However, Asians and Hispanics were slightly more likely to go into engineering, as nearly half of the college-educated Asians and Hispanics majored in engineering, compared with 38% for whites and 32% for blacks.

But not all STEM degree holders get jobs in STEM fields. According to the report, Asians with STEM degrees have the largest percentage of jobs in STEM, at 49%. A third of whites and 28% of Hispanics and those in the “all other” group who have STEM degrees have STEM jobs. According to the report, the situation is more interesting for blacks, of whom 29% with STEM degrees hold STEM jobs, a percentage considerably higher than might be expected on the basis of the share of blacks getting STEM degrees.

In total STEM jobs held regardless of degree, however, whites, who represent the majority of the population, dominate. The report finds whites made up 72% of the STEM workforce in 2009, followed by Asians at 14%, and then blacks and Hispanics each at 6%. The remaining 2% of the workforce was made up of American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

“The driver behind the minority groups’ lower overall probability of having STEM jobs appears to be lower college graduation rates for Hispanics and black workers compared to white workers,” ESA’s Beede tells C&EN. “These findings suggest that the shares of Hispanics and blacks with STEM jobs could be raised if their college graduation rates could be raised.”

The report also looks at the numbers for foreign-born workers in the STEM fields. Here, the numbers for Asian workers dominate. The report finds that one in five STEM workers in the U.S. is foreign-born, and 63% of those foreign-born come from Asia. Europe provides 16% of the foreign-born STEM workforce, 13% come from Latin America, and 4% from Africa. The report finds that, of the Asian workers in this country with STEM jobs, 87% of them were born outside of the U.S.

The share of foreign-born STEM workers with bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees has nearly doubled over the past 17 years, according to the report. It says this might be because many countries have shown rapidly rising income levels over the past decade and thus more students from these nations are now able to afford to attend U.S. colleges and universities for a high-quality STEM education.

Salaries are significantly higher for anyone having a STEM job than for those in non-STEM jobs, the report states. This holds true no matter what racial or ethnic group a person is in. For example, white STEM workers get salaries that are 22% higher on average than those not in STEM jobs, and Asians receive 31% more for STEM jobs. The highest premium goes to black STEM jobholders, who receive 39% more than other black workers. At least some of this difference is attributable to people holding STEM jobs being less likely to be unemployed than non-STEM workers and also more likely to be college educated.

Shirley M. Malcom, the head of the Directorate for Education & Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been working to improve educational opportunities for underrepresented minorities for more than 30 years. She tells C&EN that the Commerce Department data on minorities in STEM are consistent with other data she has seen. “The data showing the high participation of Asians in STEM and the lower participation by other minority groups are totally consistent with what we have seen,” Malcom says.

The data show that holding a STEM degree gives college graduates a bigger advantage in finding a well-paying job, Malcom notes. And she finds it interesting that this advantage is larger for underrepresented minorities than for any other racial group.

Malcom says these data will be useful to educators trying to convince minority students to stick with STEM courses in college. “In terms of counseling students, and helping them understand the value of an education and a degree in a STEM field, this would help,” she says. “We see a lot of minority students who go into college with an interest in science or math but do not complete their degrees. That is sad, given that these data show what kind of difference a STEM degree can make.”

The Commerce Department hopes for a wider outreach of the message from this series of reports. “It is our hope that the findings of ESA’s three STEM reports and the important message they carry will reach a wide audience of policymakers, business leaders, educators, journalists, and the general public,” Beede says. The report “is for anyone concerned about the ability of the U.S. to compete, leveraging the STEM talent necessary to thrive in an increasingly globalized marketplace for workers, investment opportunities, goods, and services.”

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