Still Underserved after All These Years

Much has happened during the past decade that has affected the quality of education received by underrepresented minority groups (African Americans, Alaska Natives, American Indians, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans). Educational progress has been made on several fronts for these groups, even while significant increases in their numbers and diversity have occurred. Challenges remain in several areas, however. In addition, efforts are underway to undermine the progress that has taken place.

Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of underrepresented minority groups in the U.S. population increased from 21.9 percent (54.5 million) to 26.3 percent (72.5 million), with the Hispanic population increasing by more than 50 percent. By 2015, one-third of Americans will be members of underrepresented minority groups. Clearly, the nation’s continued well-being will depend to a significant degree on the quality and level of education received by this growing segment of the population. Access to education for minorities has improved at all levels during the past decade, but the improvement has been uneven and at no level has it been adequate.

Access to education for minorities has improved at all levels during the past decade, but the improvement has been uneven and at no level has it been adequate.

Preschool. Gains in participation by underrepresented minority groups in early childhood programs are particularly encouraging. For example, African American children aged 3 to 5 continued to participate in center-based early childhood care and education programs at a higher rate than children from other racial/ethnic groups, accounting for more than 60 percent of such students by 2001. Also, children from underrepresented minority groups continued to represent the majority of children (65 percent in 2002) served by the federally funded Head Start program.

Despite such significant participation by minority children in early childhood education programs, gaps persist in other areas. For example, white non-Hispanic children aged 3 to 5 remained more likely (64 percent) in 2001 to be read to every day by a family member or an adult than African American children (48 percent) or Hispanic children (42 percent).

K-12. Progress in elementary and high school is encouraging in certain respects. For example, high-school completion rates improved for 18- to 24-year-old underrepresented minorities between 1990 and 2000, increasing to 84 percent for African Americans and to 64 percent for Hispanics. Nevertheless, these rates remained below the 88 percent completion rate for whites in this age group. Another encouraging development was a decline in school dropout rates among 16- to 24-year-old underrepresented minorities between 1990 and 1999 (to 12.6 percent for African Americans and 28.6 percent for Hispanics). Although encouraging, these rates remain well above the 7.3 percent dropout rate for white students in 1999.

Underrepresented minorities continue to score significantly lower than whites and Asians on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other standardized tests throughout their schooling. On the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which students take when applying for college, the gap has actually widened for some groups. For example, the difference between the combined math and verbal scores of white and African American students has increased from 193 points (1,049 vs. 856 out of a total of 1,600 points) in 1996 to 201 points (1,060 vs. 859) in 2001.

Part of this gap can be explained by differences in enrollment patterns in challenging courses in high school. In 1998, for example, underrepresented minority students were half as likely as whites and one-third as likely as Asian students to have taken calculus. Among high-school graduates that year, underrepresented minority students were less likely than white or Asian students to have taken physics (19 percent versus 31 percent of white and 46 percent of Asian high-school graduates). Another contributing factor to the gap is a disparity in teacher quality. Students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are more likely to take classes with teachers who do not have majors or minors in the subjects they teach. Moreover, teachers of underrepresented minority students are less likely to be certified in the subjects they teach.

The lack of teacher diversity also may be a factor contributing to the achievement gap. In the 1999­2000 school year, only 17 percent of the K-12 teaching workforce was nonwhite, whereas 38 percent of the public K-12 enrollment was nonwhite. It is important for students to see members of their own racial/ethnic group in positions of authority and influence, especially during their developmental years.

These findings strongly reinforce the need for greater encouragement of underrepresented minority students to enroll in rigorous academic programs; achieve high academic standards; and sharpen their communications, computer, and leadership skills. Such preparation is necessary if they are to succeed in college and beyond.

Undergraduate education. Between 1991 and 2000, the percentage of baccalaureate degrees in science and engineering earned by underrepresented minority groups increased from 10.3 percent (36,682) to 15.6 percent (65,183) of all such baccalaureate degrees awarded to U.S. citizens. Although impressive, this percentage is well below the 26.3 percent of the U.S. population that these groups represent.

Science and engineering baccalaureate degrees represented 32 percent of all of baccalaureate degrees earned by underrepresented groups in 2000. However, 57 percent of these degrees were in the social sciences, whereas it is in fields such as mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering that these groups are most underrepresented. Opportunities for underrepresented minorities to pursue doctoral degrees in these fields far exceed the available pool of minorities with the required undergraduate degrees.

Unfortunately, many underrepresented minority students continue to arrive on college campuses in need of remedial assistance to prepare them for the gatekeeper courses required of science and engineering majors. Many of these students become discouraged and do not see science and engineering majors or careers as realistic choices.

Graduate degrees. The percentage of doctoral degrees in science and engineering earned by underrepresented minority groups increased during the 1990s to 5.9 percent. This improvement represented a 50 percent increase (from 1,013 to 1,542) in the number of science and engineering doctorates earned by these groups. Despite this improvement, this percentage is significantly below the representation of these groups in the U.S. population.

The science and engineering doctoral degrees earned by underrepresented minority students represented almost half (47 percent) of all of the doctoral degrees they earned in both 1991 and 2000. As was the case with baccalaureate degrees earned by underrepresented minorities, the majority of the science and engineering doctoral degrees were in the social sciences (51 percent in 1991 and 49 percent in 2000).

Of major concern to some advocates of equitable opportunities for underrepresented groups is the disproportionate number of doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded to non-U.S. citizens by U. S. universities relative to those awarded to members of underrepresented minority groups. In 2001, non-U.S. citizens were awarded 5,028 doctoral degrees by U. S. institutions in the physical sciences and engineering, whereas underrepresented minorities received only 401 doctorates in these disciplines. Many underrepresented minorities see this disparate production as a lack of commitment to their education and a devaluing of their potential to contribute to the advancement of U.S. society.

Enhancing equity

Action is needed on several fronts to remove the major barriers to equity in science and engineering for underrepresented minority students. We can begin by leveling the playing field and by not attributing achievement gaps to intellectual inferiority but rather to the real causes: the often deliberate denial of those things needed for educational success. Steps must be taken to

  • Ensure that every child is taught by teachers who are well-prepared to teach the subjects they are teaching
  • Ensure that every child has access to challenging academic courses and a supportive learning environment
  • Encourage every child to fully develop his/her interests and talents, including in mathematics and science
  • Provide every child access to enriching after-school programs

We also must provide parents, particularly those in low-income communities, ready access to user-friendly information on courses in which their children should enroll and on steps they can take to improve their children’s academic performance. They need information on and assistance with college admissions and financial aid procedures.

Regrettably, even if all of these areas receive the attention they deserve, other threats have surfaced: the increasing resegregation of our public schools and multiple attempts to roll back affirmative action in higher education. School boards, community leaders, and state and local policymakers must address K-12 resegregation, because it is clear that schools with a large number of minority and poor students receive less of everything necessary for academic success. University boards, business leaders, and policymakers at the state and national levels need to speak out more forcibly against attacks on affirmative action. Without access to the quality of education available at our major research universities, underrepresented minority students will continue to receive a second-class education relative to their more affluent peers.

Left unattended, the resulting resegregation of U.S. education will ensure continued domination of this country’s academic, business, and military leadership by nonminorities. It will reinforce myths about racial superiority. It will further erode the hopes and aspirations of a rapidly growing and younger portion of our population, a population upon which America’s future well-being depends.

The United States must fully embrace the notion that every child has a right to a quality education. It must take the steps needed to make this right a reality. Fully developing the potential of almost a third of our population, closing the achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups, and validating the worth of every American must be understood as critical to our national interest. Although our flagship institutions may continue to welcome students from across the globe, the United States must fully educate its own people and depend more on its own citizens for its continued global leadership and national security.

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Cite this Article

McBay, Shirley M. “Still Underserved after All These Years.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003