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Should We Steer Minority STEM Students Away From Top Schools?

A panel convened by the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights worries about mismatch between a student's training and the rigor of college programs.

My guess is that you read the title of this post and immediately thought to yourself, "Um, no!" But members of a panel recently convened by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to deliver a report on the outcomes of minority students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines think otherwise.

The recommendation to discourage minority students whose preparation in high school leaves them below the median of students enrolling in STEM programs at elite colleges is known as the "'mistmatch' hypothesis," according to a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Over all, the commission concluded that, at the colleges the panel studied, admissions preferences based on ethnicity resulted in higher attrition rates for minority students who entered intending to study a STEM discipline.

When black and white students enter with similar academic credentials, black students are actually more likely to graduate with a science degree, the report says. It is only when minority students' academic credentials are not close to those of their peers that the problem emerges, it says.

The commission said colleges should warn students whose academic credentials are less than the institution's median about the impact of that deficit, and urged guidance counselors to advise students on the problems they would face entering a STEM program at an institution where they fall below the level of the typical student.

The eight-person committee, which included four Republicans and two Democrats, was split on the recommendations, with the Democratic members dissenting. In essence, this is a fight on affirmative action, with the Republican faction essentially arguing against the practice for STEM applicants coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It may be true that minority students who want to enter STEM fields but whose preparation might not be up to snuff tend to leave these subjects (and possibly school altogether). But is discouraging them from entering competitive academic tracks the way to go? Shouldn't we encourage ambition and expect the best of minority (and non-minority) students?

Photo via National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering

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