Launchings

MAA Speaks Out on Capitol Hill

David M. Bressoud October, 2009

On Tuesday, September 22, Sylvia Bozeman of Spelman College, Carlos Castillo-Chavez of Arizona State University, and I gave a congressional briefing on "Undergraduate Mathematics: Promising Recruitment and Retention Strategies to Ensure Diversity in the STEM Pipeline." This was done in collaboration with Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, chairman of the House education committee's higher-education subcommittee, who introduced the session by speaking of the importance of mathematics as "the foundation for so many endeavors," and who is promoting mentoring partnerships in mathematics and science between government, business, and universities. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on the briefing [1], and full details of the presentations can be found at www.maa.org/sciencepolicy/index.html#Congressional.

My role was to introduce the session by explaining that there is much that needs to be done, as the data and graphs displayed in the rest of this article demonstrate, but the point of the briefing was to highlight what works. Both Professors Bozeman and Castillo-Chavez focused on the multiple positive effects of involving students in undergraduate research: It attracts and inspires students while giving them a clear sense of why they need the mathematics and what they can do with it. They also spoke of the need to mentor students, especially through the difficult transition points from high school to college, from calculus-level to advanced undergraduate mathematics, into graduate school, and on to research positions. The Arizona State University Institute for Strengthening the Understanding of Mathematics and Science (SUMS) together with the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI), both of which are directed by Professor Castillo-Chavez, have been particularly successful at this vertical integration of support. Fifty-six of their alumni have completed Ph.D.'s in the mathematical sciences, and 41 of these 56 are individuals from underrepresented minorities.

The point is that we know what it takes if we want greater numbers of students to succeed in mathematics, science, and engineering. In addition to the essential scholarship programs that make it financially possible for students to attend college, we need active recruitment, mentoring, community building, research opportunities, encouragement through transition points, and programs that introduce students to interdisciplinary options. We should provide these for all of our students, but they are particularly important for students at high risk. The National Science Foundation is actively engaged in supporting such projects, but the time has come to scale up the efforts that work. This is why Rep. Hinojosa's commitment to promote collaboration among government, business, and universities is very promising.

The data describing where we are [2]

The most dramatic data pertains to African Americans.

The number of non-Hispanic African Americans earning a bachelor's degree has been consistently improving. Today, their representation among all of those earning bachelor's degrees is closing in on their representation of 14.4% within the college-age population. For most of the '90s, African Americans were represented among mathematics majors in numbers commensurate with their representation among all recipients of bachelor's degrees. But that changed around the start of this century when their representation began to decline sharply.

The next two graphs compare actual numbers of mathematics majors.

In the early '90s, the number of African Americans in Mathematics rose from 725 in 1990 to 1,011 in 1995, and then held fairly steady for the next five years. There were 999 African American mathematics majors in 2000. This number then began a significant decline, reaching 858 in 2007 and wiping out most of the gain of the early 1990s. The recent decline is all the more noticeable because it has coincided with an overall increase in the number of mathematics majors.

It is interesting to compare what has happened within Mathematics with the other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines.

African Americans are under-represented in all of these disciplines with the possible exception of Computer and Information Science, but only Mathematics has seen such a sharp decrease in the rate of representation. In the Biological, Computer, and Physical Sciences, the numbers of African Americans has at least doubled since 1990. It has increased by 50% in Engineering.

There is comparable data for Hispanic Americans.

In 2007, Hispanic Americans accounted for 10.2% of all college graduates (compared to 13.8% of the college-age population), but only 6.4% of mathematics majors. In this case, however, Mathematics is not doing noticeably worse than the other STEM majors.

The numbers are much smaller for Native Americans, so there is tremendous year-to-year variation. But the general trends are similar. Because these graphs are so much noisier, I am only reporting total bachelor's degrees, Mathematics, Engineering, and the Physical Sciences.

Native Americans account for 1.1% of the college-age population, so there is still considerable work to be done to bring up their numbers among college graduates. For those who are going to college, Native Americans are represented commensurate with their numbers among Physical and Biological Science majors. There is work to be done in Mathematics and Engineering. Computer and Information Science generally falls between these two clusters.

The last minority group for which the US Department of Education tracks data consists of Asian Americans. It should not be surprising that have tended to be over-represented among STEM majors. What is interesting is that in the past few years, their numbers among majors in Mathematics and the Computer and Physical Sciences has come to match their representation among the general college population.

So who is over-represented among mathematics majors? Non-US residents are in this group. While accounting for only 3.0% of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the US in 2007, they made up 4.3% of the bachelor's degrees in Mathematics. But that is a relatively small portion of the total mathematics majors. Mathematics majors are largely non-Hispanic white men. In 2007 they constituted 41.2% of all mathematics majors while making up only 31.5% of all bachelor's degrees.

[1] Libby Nelson. Minority Students Needed in Math and Science to Combat 'Brain Drain,' Professors Say. The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 22, 2009. chronicle.com/article/Minority-Students-Needed-in/48568/

[2] All data presented in these graphs is from the National Center for Education Statistics. 1990–2009. Digest of Education Statistics. US Department of Education. nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/


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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and President of the MAA. You can reach him at bressoud@macalester.edu. This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.