In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on STEM Education: Progress and Prospects
March 15, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 1

Promoting Access to Undergraduate STEM Education: The Legal and Policy Environment

Friday, March 15, 2013

Author: Liliana M. Garces and Lorelle L. Espinosa

Greater diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields not only sets the stage for a robust 21st century workforce but also contributes to educational and research environments that reflect and draw on diverse perspectives for stronger science (NAS/NAE/IOM 2011). But women and America’s fast-growing racial and ethnic populations remain highly underrepresented in these fields. Higher education policies that have historically expanded access and opportunity for underrepresented minorities and women on college campuses have included the consideration of race, ethnicity, and/or gender as an “affirmative” factor in admissions. Such policies, however, are the target of legal and public debate that compels new thinking about complementary strategies to help widen the pipeline of diverse students who will pursue STEM studies and careers.

In this article, we provide an overview of the current status of underrepresented minorities (URMs) and women in US STEM higher education and of the shifting legal and policy climates surrounding affirmative action policies at colleges and universities nationwide. We make the point that—given the uncertain future of race-conscious admissions policies, declines in racial and ethnic diversity at postsecondary institutions in states that have banned affirmative action, and the negative long-term consequences of these declines for the nation—institutions must explore alternative strategies for increasing participation and careers in STEM. For many students, access and exposure to college environments and supportive role models and mentors can make a world of difference for expanding access to STEM fields, so we describe promising outreach and partnership strategies at the college and K–12 levels.

The Status of Underrepresented Populations in STEM

According to Census Bureau projections (Vincent and Velkoff 2010), the aggregate US minority population will become the majority by 2042. Latinos alone are projected to make up 19 percent of the US civilian labor force by 2020 (Toossi 2012) and nearly one-third of the country’s population by 2050 (Passel and Cohn 2008). Yet the fastest-growing populations are also those most underrepresented in higher education generally and STEM in particular. And although women are the majority of college students, they remain severely underrepresented in certain STEM fields, including engineering and computer science.

Figure 1

A recent study conducted by the American Institutes for Research presents trend data on bachelor’s degree completion by gender, race/ethnicity, and STEM discipline from 1989 to 2009 (Rodriguez et al. 2012). A comparison of the data for US demographic trends against bachelor’s degree attainment in STEM fields reveals a troubling picture of lost opportunity for underrepresented minorities. As Figure 1 shows, although Latinos made up 16 percent of the US population in 2009, they received just 7 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees. Similarly, African Americans represented 12 percent of the population in 2009 but earned just 6 percent of STEM degrees. And although men and women represent roughly the same proportion of the population, the gender gap persists in certain STEM disciplines, with the greatest inequities in engineering and the computer sciences (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Finally, perhaps in part because of their lower representation in higher education, as a proportion of STEM degree recipients, minority women and men are greatly underrepresented in their respective gender group. African American and Latina women earned just 5 percent (each) of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in 2009, and American Indian/Alaska Native women earned just one half of 1 percent. Of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded to men in 2009, African Americans earned only 3 percent of degrees, Latinos 4 percent, and American Indian/Alaska Natives 0.3 percent. In raw numbers, however, minority men earned slightly more STEM degrees than did minority women, and, as with majority students, they typically earn more degrees than minority women in fields such as engineering, where they earn roughly two out of three degrees.

While the education policy community has turned more attention over the years to narrowing achievement gaps at all levels, it remains the case that secondary education has a particularly important role in ensuring access to college—and preparedness for STEM studies—for underrepresented groups. Colleges and universities are gatekeepers to the majority of STEM careers. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and Workforce, by 2018, the majority of STEM jobs will require at least some college, with a full 41 percent requiring a bachelor’s degree (Carnevale et al. 2011). To meet both the demand for STEM talent and the scientific, technological, and environmental challenges of this century, all US citizens should have the tools to enter and succeed in college STEM majors.

Shifting Legal and Policy Climates

A long-standing practice for institutions of higher education to help increase access for underrepresented groups is affirmative action: the consideration of race and/or ethnicity as a factor, among others, in the admissions process (see Bowen and Bok 1998; Bowen et al. 2005). As institutions implemented these efforts to address the cumulative effects of racial discrimination and remedy educational inequities, legal developments subsequently shifted this rationale to include educational and democracy-based justifications.

Supreme Court Cases

In the 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Justice Powell (the controlling opinion in the case) rejected the use of race-conscious admission policies to address the effects of past discrimination, endorsing their use, instead, for the purpose of attaining a diverse student body that would further the educational missions of postsecondary institutions.

Legal challenges persisted, however, and, after sustained litigation, the US Supreme Court in 2003 endorsed the limited use of race as a factor in admissions (Grutter v. Bollinger). In an opinion authored by Justice O’Connor, the Court held, as Justice Powell had in Bakke, that universities could consider race under strict limits to further a compelling interest in the educational benefits of student body diversity. Importantly, the Court’s decision also expanded the justification for race-conscious policies beyond securing the educational benefits of a diverse student body to considering the broader implications of diversity for society and the nation.

The majority opinion in Grutter emphasized the role of universities and professional schools in providing “the training ground for a large number of our Nation’s leaders” (Grutter, 539 US at 332). The Court also stressed the need for these institutions to be inclusive of individuals of all races and ethnicities so that they can have “confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training” (Grutter, 539 US at 332). With this expanded rationale, the Court recognized the important role of postsecondary institutions in sustaining the health of the US democracy by having a student body that more closely reflects the racial/ethnic diversity of the United States (e.g., Bowen et al. 2005).

The educational and democracy-related justifications for race-conscious admissions practices at postsecondary institutions are especially relevant to diversity efforts in STEM. In these fields, diversity is critical for understanding the issues being researched, addressing the needs of diverse communities, preparing individuals for effective professional practice in multiracial settings, and fostering creativity and innovation through the embrace of multiple perspectives (see, e.g., Harvey and Allard 2011; Page 2007). Diversity improves the quality of education for all students as the skills acquired through interaction with racially diverse peers have a lasting effect on individuals’ preparation for employment in an increasingly diverse and global workforce.

But consideration of race as an affirmative factor in admissions remains the target of legal and public debate. The Court is now revisiting the topic in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that is likely to affect the admissions practices of higher education institutions across the nation and may restrict the Court’s holding in Grutter. At issue is whether the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policy, which considers race as one of many factors, is necessary to further the educational benefits of diversity. In Fisher, one of the Court’s liberal justices, Justice Kagan (who replaced Justice Stevens) has recused herself, as she worked on the case on behalf of the Obama administration when she served as solicitor general. The final vote, therefore, could be a 4-4 decision (which would leave in place the Fifth Circuit’s decision upholding the constitutionality of the university’s race-conscious admissions policy) or another configuration of votes that could overrule the Fifth Circuit’s decision and restrict Grutter.1

State-Level Actions

Debates over affirmative action are active at the state level as well. States are free to pass laws that prohibit affirmative action at public institutions, and eight states have done so. Of these, six (Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Washington) implemented the bans through voter-approved initiatives or referenda, and two banned the practice by executive decision (Florida) and legislative vote (New Hampshire). These bans have led to substantial declines in student racial/ethnic diversity, particularly at selective colleges and universities (see, e.g., Backes 2012; Hinrichs 2012; Tienda et al. 2003), in the professional fields of law (Kidder 2003) and medicine (Steinecke and Terrell 2008), and in other fields of graduate study (Garces 2012).

Diversity in graduate programs has decreased the most in the very science fields that are critical for the nation’s continued scientific and technological advancement. For example, affirmative action bans at public institutions in California, Florida, Washington, and Texas have led to a 26 percent fall in the percentage of engineering graduate students who are Latino, African American, or Native American, and a 19 percent reduction in the natural sciences (Garces 2013).


If the Court in the Fisher case decides to limit the ability of institutions to consider race in admissions, then, as in states where the consideration of race in admissions has been banned by ballot initiatives and other measures, institutions may witness further enrollment declines among minority men and women. This development could have long-term, detrimental consequences for institutional outreach, recruitment, and support efforts for students in STEM fields and ultimately for American leadership in industry, defense, and basic and applied science.

A homogeneous STEM student body also tends to reinforce an already “chilly climate” for minority women. The social and cultural climate in STEM fields is a leading barrier to the perseverance of women of color in STEM careers (Ong et al. 2011). A large survey study of women of color in STEM graduate programs (Brown 1994, 2000) revealed that isolation, racism, and being racially/ethnically identifiable are greater challenges to their persistence than factors such as financial aid. Thus, a reduction of even one or two students of color in a STEM program can undermine the possibility of other URM students’ persevering in the program.

There may also be long-term effects on faculty diversity in STEM fields since doctoral training and graduate degree acquisition feed into faculty positions. Faculty play a critical role in influencing students’ decisions to attend graduate school, choose a program, and pursue a STEM career (Gasman et al. 2009; Ong 2002; Sader 2007). Faculty perspectives and research trajectories also have long-lasting effects on scientific inquiry (Espinosa 2011). Declines in the number of students of color thus affect the future composition of STEM faculty, the educational experiences of students, and the types of research conducted.

Promising Practices Moving Forward

Support and Outreach at the K–12 Level

Of course the first step to solidifying a diverse STEM student body and subsequent workforce is to strengthen the role of higher-education stakeholders in ensuring access to scientific college majors. To do this, effective outreach to K–12 students is important to ensure a stream of potential freshmen from diverse backgrounds and to fulfill institutional commitments to serve local communities. While an institution’s admissions office is certainly responsible for such activities, as are university outreach programs that target diverse populations, it is critical that STEM faculty actively support outreach programming and work in conjunction with outreach professionals. In addition to becoming involved in on-campus recruitment activities, particularly those aimed at attracting URMs and potential STEM students, faculty and staff can seek extramural (federal, philanthropic, corporate) funds and build diversity-focused activities (also called “broadening participation”) into research and development grant proposals.

One of the most effective ways to get students interested in studying STEM is to get them to a college campus, into a laboratory, or onto an industry campus. The success of science museums in piquing the interest of young learners can be replicated by exposing students to cutting-edge technologies.

It is also critical that K–12 students be exposed to role models in STEM and be connected with mentors who can show them that the path to a STEM career is achievable, as illustrated in programs such as MIT’s Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy and community networks such as Los Angeles’ Great Minds in STEM.

Groups dedicated to progress for girls and women in technology—many with impressive online resources and networks—include Girl Geeks, dot diva, EngineerGirl, the Society of Women Engineers, Anita Borg Institute, National Center for Women and Information Technology, and the Ada Project at Carnegie Mellon University (a leader in enrolling and graduating women in computer science). Also available are national networks (e.g., and numerous state-based networks that facilitate collaboration across K–12 and higher education, government, and private industry. In short, there are a number of promising models and networks for faculty and staff to explore, emulate, or adapt.

But outreach activities are no panacea. Much needs to occur at both the pre-K and K–12 levels to ensure that all students have access to support systems that celebrate high achievement and provide quality education, advanced coursework, and seamless transitions across grade levels. Higher education has a role as well, and would do well to strengthen research and teacher training in schools of education.

Partnerships at the College Level

The debate over affirmative action has focused primarily on the use of this policy at elite or selective institutions. Indeed, it is vitally important that students of color be welcomed at selective institutions as attendance is associated with greater benefits for all students, including higher degree completion rates (Alon and Tienda 2005) and enrollment in graduate or professional school (Mullen et al. 2003). Graduation from more selective institutions also leads to higher earnings and job success, particularly for Latinos and African Americans (Bowen and Bok 1998; Gandara and Maxwell-Jolly 1999). For these and other reasons, to create a more welcoming environment for URM and women students, departmental and institutional leadership should, among other things, reward diversity gains by faculty as part of the promotion and tenure process.

But elite institutions enroll a small proportion of America’s undergraduate student body and a small fraction of URM students. Thus, one important and complementary strategy for increasing participation in STEM is to invest in institutions where minority students are most likely to enroll—community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and public colleges and universities.

Policymakers, educators, and industry leaders are right to recognize the importance of community colleges. Two-year colleges enroll 44 percent of the total American undergraduate population—and 54 percent of Native American undergraduates, 51 percent of Latino, 44 percent of African American, and 45 percent of Asian American/Pacific Islander undergraduates (AACC 2012). Four-year institutions and their faculty would therefore be wise to foster relationships with community colleges with the goal of building a pipeline of potential STEM transfer students. Such pipeline strategies will not only benefit students but strengthen the academic environment on both types of campuses.

Also important is the current and potential role of four-year minority-serving institutions (MSIs), which see their students through to graduation at higher rates than predominantly white campuses. While the latter graduate more African American and Latino STEM students in raw numbers, a larger proportion of the MSI student body enrolls and graduates in the STEM fields (Rodriguez et al. 2012).

Moreover, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are known for the success of their STEM graduates. According to the National Science Foundation (Burrelli and Rapoport 2008), the top eight baccalaureate institutions for African Americans who later earned science and engineering PhD degrees were HBCUs. While institutional contexts certainly differ across campuses, predominantly white institutions can learn a lot from MSIs, including HBCUs, with strong track records for degree production in STEM. Creating and strengthening relationships with these institutions could further enhance STEM pipeline efforts.

The formation of effective partnerships is at the heart of a recent report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in collaboration with EducationCounsel (Coleman et al. 2012). The Smart Grid for Institutions of Higher Education and the Students They Serve is a guidebook with practical steps to effective collaborations between two- and four-year institutions, across four-year institutions, and between undergraduate and graduate programs. Like its predecessor, the Handbook on Diversity and the Law (Burgoyne et al. 2010), the guide was written in conjunction with legal experts so that institutions can move forward in confidence knowing that their programs will be both effective and legally sustainable.


Considering the current and projected makeup of the US population, it is clear that to continue to excel in STEM and lead the world in addressing today’s toughest scientific and technological challenges, American higher education must increase the representation of women and students of color in the STEM fields. The country’s potential to innovate and thrive is only as great as its potential to ensure the participation of its fastest-growing demographic groups. Latinos, African Americans, and other students of color represent America’s untapped STEM talent pool, as do women in the important fields of engineering and computer science. Diversity policies and programs on two- and four-year campuses are necessary to ensure that more underrepresented students pursue STEM majors and graduate with STEM credentials. This will require higher-education institutions to collaborate in new ways, as well as an influx of resources for K–12 outreach and the participation of faculty in such efforts.


The work described and cited in this article (Rodriguez et al. 2012) was funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. HRD-1059774).


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1 Since the 2003 Grutter decision, Justice O’Connor has been replaced by Justice Alito, one of the more conservative justices on the Court who voted with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Scalia in the Court’s most recent education case to deny K–12 schools a compelling interest in maintaining racial diversity (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 2007).



About the Author:Liliana M. Garces is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. Lorelle L. Espinosa is a senior analyst at Abt Associates.