Written by: Yazmin Torres
Latinxs are the fastest growing and youngest demographic in the United States. Despite growing numbers, the representation of Latinxs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is not proportionate to the population (Crisp & Nora, 2012 as cited in Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2010). To fill the available positions in STEM fields adequately and for the United States to maintain its competitive position in the global economy, we must encourage more Latinxs to pursue and attain a degree in STEM (Crisp & Nora, 2012).
While Latinxs are equally as likely to major in STEM as their White counterparts, they are not similarly likely to receive a degree (Crisp & Nora, 2012 as cited in Chen & Weko, 2009). According to the Higher Education Research Institute (2010), 16 percent of Latinxs who initially majored in STEM in 2004 received a STEM degree in 2009, compared to 25 percent of White students.
The question that arises then is, why does this disparity exist? What causes Latinxs to leave STEM? Based on critical discourse and research analysis of the literature on Latinxs in STEM, many issues contribute to this disparity. These factors are interconnected and add to the disproportionate, under-representation of Latinxs in STEM. However, the underlying root of these factors seems to come from the long history of (institutional) racism, as well as the discrimination towards Latinxs in the United States — a past that continues to hinder the success and social mobility of Latinxs. In this paper, I analyze the intersections of economic, cognitive, sociocultural, and institutional factors that influence the attrition of Latinxs in STEM.
The socioeconomic status for the majority of Latinxs in the United States has shown to negatively impact the quality of education Latinxs receive and, therefore, their likelihood to pursue and persist in STEM. According to the College of Education and Human Development (2016), for the first time in United States history, the single largest group of poor children is not white — they are Latinx. Today, one-third of Latinx children live in poverty, and two-thirds live in low-income households (Alvarez de Davila & Michaels, 2016).
Due to the economic situations that Latinxs face, they cannot send their children to schools with adequate funding and educational opportunities. When it comes to K-12 education, Latinxs are more likely to be taught by science teachers who are inexperienced or did not major in that field, and they are more likely than white students to be exposed to funding inequities (Crisp & Nora, 2012 as cited in Young, 2005).
The K-12 education that Latinxs receive has a strong positive correlation with the probability that Latinxs will major and attain a STEM degree. Research shows that a student’s exposure to challenging mathematics, science, and English courses in their K-12 academic experience is a critical predictor for the student to choose a major in STEM (Crisp & Nora, 2012 as cited in Astin & Astin, 1992; Simpson, 2001). Furthermore, the student’s standardized test scores, high school percentile, high school GPA, and the number of Advanced Placement classes taken in STEM serve as predictors for the student’s ability to persist in STEM (Crisp & Nora, 2012).
Since the allocation of funds is not equal across school districts, many Latinxs are unable to foster their interest and learning in science and mathematics and are not adequately prepared once they enter college (Crisp & Nora, 2012). Nationally, Latinxs tend to have lower grades, lower standardized test scores, and higher dropout rates than students from other ethnic groups (Alvarez de Davila & Michaels, 2016).
Another component in keeping Latinxs interested and enrolled in higher education is the availability of financial aid. Many Latinxs express financial concerns with family responsibilities and full-time work commitments (Crisp & Nora, 2012). The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering found that financial support is among the top five factors related to the persistence of minority students in engineering (Crisp & Nora, 2012 as cited in Landis, 1985). Often, a degree in STEM takes longer to complete than other majors, and therefore it is of significant importance that Latinxs receive adequate funding in their academic pursuits (Crisp & Nora, 2012).
Cognitive Factors — Attitudes and Perceptions
The lack of Latinx representation in children’s school books influences Latinx students from a young age to believe that their language, values, and culture do not belong in an academic setting. Although Latinxs make up nearly a quarter of the public school population, most protagonists in children’s books are White (Rich, 2012). According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison School of Education, in 2011, it was found that just over 3 percent of the 3,400 children books published were written by or about Latinxs.
There are some exceptions, but they are “not finding their way into the classrooms,” said Patricia Enciso, an associate professor at Ohio State University. In years to come, we must develop more culturally relevant books in academia that Latinxs can connect and identify with — this then can lead to greater empowerment and academic achievement (Maricia, 2018).
As a result of this under-representation and the lack of high-quality, high school instruction, it is hard for Latinxs to perceive themselves as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Latinxs have lower levels of self-efficacy and academic self-concept when it comes to STEM compared to their White counterparts (Crisp & Nora, 2012). On a college campus, these feelings experienced by Latinxs are made worse by the stereotype threat — situations in which people feel at risk of conforming to negative stereotypes about their social group.
Maya Beasley and Mary Fischer from the University of Connecticut (2012) found that stereotype threat had a significant effect on the attrition of women and minorities (which refers specifically to Latinx and Black communities and is accordingly the remainder of the paper) from STEM majors. When their race or gender comes up in conversation, according to a series of performance-based assessments conducted in the study, researches found that women and minorities score lower.
In the analysis of their findings, Beasley and Fischer discuss how individuals choose to “disengage” from situations (e.g., exam) of stereotype threat to defend their self-esteem. While individuals will selectively decide not to identify with a particular location within a domain (e.g., STEM), they will continue to identify with the area itself. However, with repeated exposure to situations of stereotype threat, individuals may fail to recognize with the domain altogether and opt-out.
In academic settings that lack diversity, the effects of stereotype threat become more real, and minorities may attribute their under-representation as a lack of competency on their part. For Latinxs majoring in STEM, the lack of academic preparation and stereotype threat is a significant cause of their attrition.
Due to the attitudes and perceptions that follow Latinx students, they are more likely to pursue a STEM degree if they feel a sense of belonging and support within their family and community. Perhaps one of the strongest influences on Latinxs is parental encouragement in math and sciences, which helps build early career aspirations (Crisp & Nora, 2012). Not surprisingly, Latinx students will be more likely to pursue STEM because they know about peers and family members who have followed a similar path (Crisp & Nora, 2012 as cited in Astin & Astin, 1992). Furthermore, when the student has a parent working in STEM, it helps to form the belief among the Latinx students that attaining a STEM degree is a realistic and attainable goal (Crisp & Nora, 2012).
When it comes to the Latinx culture itself, the concept of marianismo emphasizes females’ self-sacrifice and role as caregivers. This concept only further hinders Latinx women’s ability to persist in STEM (Alvarez de Davila & Michaels, 2012). As a result of these cultural expectations, the anticipation of marriage and family responsibility has shown to discourage Latinx women from joining STEM, but on the contrary, encourage Latinx men (Crisp & Nora, 2012).
While Latinx men face stereotype threat only on the accounts of race, Latinx women face it on both accounts of race and gender. In addition to a caregiver’s role, people see women as bad at math and science in the United States (Beasley & Fischer, 2012 as cited in Park et al., 2001). As a result of this race/gender complex, Latinx women will have to face more challenging conditions in pursuing a STEM degree. Currently, minority women are the most underrepresented group in STEM (Crisp & Nora, 2012).
While institutional racism and segregation may no longer exist by law in the United States, schools are still largely segregated. In research conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles in 2011, it was found that the typical Latinx student attended a school that was 57 percent Latinx, the average Black student attended a school that was 49 percent Black, and the typical white student attended a school that was 73 percent White — with high rates of concentrated poverty in Latinx and Black communities (Klein, 2015).
When a Latinx student from a low socioeconomic status enters a predominantly white, middle-class status, they will often face cultural incongruence — a clash between their “home” culture and “university” culture. (Cole & Espinoza, 2008). For this reason, Latinxs are more likely to view the climate of their college institution as hostile, disrespectful, and racist. In contrast, their White counterparts view it as favorable, friendly, and respectful. (Cole & Espinoza, 2008).
Furthermore, Latinx students often reported racial prejudice by their teaching assistants, faculty, and other students (Cole & Espinoza, 2008 as cited in Ancis, Sedlacek & Mohr, 2000). Such a campus climate may cause Latinx students to be more likely to suffer from mental health issues, be less motivated to participate in school activities, and ultimately feel more disconnected with the education they are pursuing (Alvarez de Davila & Michaels, 2016). High levels of cultural incongruity within the university, especially in STEM majors, will undoubtedly lead to greater attrition from Latinxs in STEM.
While it is essential to understand the factors that impact the attrition of Latinxs in STEM, it is also vital that we focus on reforms that will encourage more Latinxs to join and be successful in STEM. Some of these reforms include (1) Early academic intervention — There needs to be a broader discussion on the importance of science and mathematics beginning in elementary education. Latinxs need to start developing early career aspirations in STEM to improve their self-concept, self-efficacy, and attitude towards STEM. (2) Family intervention — Teachers and faculty should make an effort to engage Latinx parents in the education of their child(ren) and in learning more about higher education. (3) Reallocate funding — Many of the schools with a large Latinx population are underfunded. For this reason, we need to focus on providing more academic resources to these locations, particularly in developing more challenging science and mathematics programs that will support the learning for Latinx students who are interested in these subjects.
As the demographics continue to change in the United States, STEM fields must aim to reflect the population’s diversity. This diversity is essential not only for commercial purposes but also for the needs of marginalized communities and the advancement of STEM itself. In having a diverse group of STEM professionals, there will be new ideas, experiences, and perspectives shared that will challenge and propel STEM initiatives in the future. These initiatives then, developed in light of a diverse population, will be better able to meet the needs of all demographics.
Cole, D., & Espinoza, A. (2008, July). Examining the Academic Success of Latino Students in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Majors. John Hopkins University Press.
Crisp, G., & Nora, A. (2012, July). Overview of Hispanics in Science, Mathematics, Engineering , and Technology (STEM): K-16 Representation, Preparation, and Participation. The University of Texas at San Antonio
Falling Behind: The Challenges Facing Latino Education in the U.S. (2016, April 28). Retrieved from https://cehdvision2020.umn.edu/blog/challenges-facing-latino-education/
Fischer, M., & Beasley, M. (2011, May). Why they leave: The impact of stereotype threat on the attrition of women and minorities from science, math, and engineering majors. Springer Science Business Media B.V.
Klein, R. (2015, October 26). Latinos Face Incredible School Segregation, And No One Is Doing Anything About It. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/latino-school-segregation_us_561d70a5e4b050c6c4a34118
Rich, M. (2012, December 05). For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/education/young-latino-students-dont-see-themselves-in-books.html