Is America Perpetuating Inequality by Increasing the Number of Schools Teaching STEM?

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of developing the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) capacity by setting the agenda to increase these skills with “high quality early education.” A 2013 study entitled “Accessing STEM-Focused Education: Factors That Contribute to the Opportunity to Attend STEM High Schools Across the United States” anticipates the President’s remarks by emphasizing the need to increase access to STEM secondary schools so that all students interested in STEM-related careers have access to schools that are equipped to prepare them. The author finds that STEM schools are not equally accessible across the nation and that lower income and minority students and students in rural areas are poorly represented in the STEM secondary population.

The author used data collected from the Common Core of Data set provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, analyzing 273 STEM secondary schools (schools serving grades 9-12 that independently declared a focus in STEM subjects), including 52 exclusive schools for which students had to apply and be admitted to before attending and 221 inclusive schools with open admission. The author explored how socioeconomic status (SES), race, and geographic location are associated with access to secondary STEM schools in the United States.

The author measured high- versus low-SES based on the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The findings show that approximately 40 percent of students at exclusive STEM schools are eligible for free lunch and 6.19 percent are eligible for reduced lunch. However, 33 percent and 6.89 percent of students who attend inclusive STEM schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch respectively, revealing that a slightly higher percentage of students that attend exclusive versus inclusive schools come from a low-SES background.

Alternatively, among exclusive STEM schools, 56 percent of schools have fewer than 50 percent of students with free or reduced lunch eligibility. Among inclusive STEM schools, 45 percent of schools were found to have more than 70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. Importantly, the data explain that less than 50 percent of all STEM students are eligible for free or reduced lunch at exclusive schools. These findings reveal potentially limited access for low-SES students to STEM secondary schools.

In terms of race, the inclusive STEM schools are more evenly distributed than their exclusive counterparts. Interestingly, black students consist of 45 percent of the student body on average at exclusive schools, an overrepresentation given that out of all secondary schools, blacks make up 9 percent of students. In contrast, Hispanics compose 20 percent of the student body at STEM secondary schools compared to 22 percent of students at all secondary schools. This finding suggests that blacks may have better access to STEM secondary schools than Hispanics, an important implication for policy that is targeted to help minority groups access these schools.

Additionally, access to STEM secondary schools depends on proximity to a city. The data show that 50 percent of inclusive STEM schools and 37 percent of exclusive STEM schools are located in large cities (e.g., a large concentration in states like New York). Alarmingly, there are examples of states analyzed in the study with low population density (e.g., Montana) that do not have any STEM schools. When analyzing geographic representation of students by race in STEM schools compared to neighborhood schools (defined as schools within a one-mile radius of the STEM school), white students make up 29 percent of the whole STEM population compared to 19 percent of the corresponding neighborhood schools. Black students, meanwhile, represent 38 percent of their neighborhood schools but only make up 33 percent of the corresponding STEM secondary school. Similar findings for blacks apply to the Hispanic population.

This study indicates that policy should not only focus on increasing the number of STEM schools in the country but should also ensure that access to these schools is equalized so that the diverse student population of the United States is also represented in STEM secondary schools. Access to STEM programs is beneficial to the nation because it increases the supply of students equipped to enter STEM-related employment opportunities that are in high demand and potentially equalizes opportunity even before individuals enter the workforce.

Feature Photo: cc/(naosuke ii)'
Shaun Edwards
Shaun Edwards is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in public finance and policy analysis.

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