African American Students and the STEM Challenge

December 9, 2015

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields are boomtown for jobs in today and tomorrow’s economy. According to Change the Equation, from 2014 to 2024, jobs in computing are slated to increase 19%, in advanced manufacturing 16%, and in engineering 12%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2012-2022, there is going to be a 37% increase in information security analysts (no surprise there!), a 27% increase in operations research analysts, a 27% increase in statisticians, and a 27% increase in biomedical engineers. This is doubly impressive, because the median salary in 2013 for all of these jobs was over $79,000 per year.

If we’re interested in improving the education and ultimately job prospects of African-American students (the topic of tomorrow and Friday’s USCCF-sponsored conference), encouraging them to train in the STEM fields seems like a promising path. Today, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is more than twice the unemployment rate for white Americans (9.1% vs. 4.1%). Turning around those troubling statistics will mean helping students find jobs in industries that are growing.

Unfortunately, too many African-American students are not receiving the education that they need to thrive in STEM fields. On the 2015 NAEP exam, only 19 percent of African-American public-school 4th graders and only 12 percent of African-American public-school  8th graders scored proficient in Mathematics. Data reported at tomorrow’s event on AP passage rates in STEM subjects will be even lower.

Luckily, there are numerous programs working today to try and help students discover affinity for STEM subjects and to think about careers in them. One such organization is Tata Consulting Services’ goIT program. Since 2009, it has provided more than 9,000 students with programs to help them get hands-on experience in technology workshops and face to face interaction with mentors working in STEM fields. It partners with schools and non-profit organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs and 4-H to spread the word to students from all different backgrounds.

But while specific STEM programming for students is great, and more of it is needed, students have to have a strong foundation in Math and Science to be able to qualify for computer programming or engineering programs in universities. So long as less than one-fifth of African-American students are meeting proficiency targets in Mathematics, we’ll never see jobs materialize, and a wonderful opportunity will have been wasted.  


Michael McShane is director of education policy at the Show Me Institute