Before we had high-powered science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, academic departments with fancy laboratories, there was just teacher, student and basic apprenticeship.
At Xavier University of Louisiana, as the STEM departments evolve, these same concepts of strong mentorship and applied learning keep Xavier president Reynold Verret oriented.
“If you think about STEM, the training and the education of a scientist or an engineer is like an apprenticeship from the Middle Ages,” Verret said. “You go and work with the Master and the Master will give you a rock and you will chisel that rock. And then he will give you a bigger rock. And he will say ‘Go. You’re good enough. Leave.’”
To Verret, a biochemist by training, the same concept applies to Xavier’s STEM students. Regardless of the background they come from, if the students have strong mentors and plenty of opportunities to work closely with them, they will be able to succeed.
Xavier’s effort for inclusion and support in STEM majors bucks patterns of segregation by college major that are typically made worse by colleges, according to a new report from the Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. The report examines what researchers call “field of study segregation,” or the shares of different demographic groups that pursue different college majors.
And Xavier, a historically Black university, may be one of few exceptions. The report found that, typically, by the time students enroll and declare majors, they are already segregated by race and gender, and they tend to graduate in similar patterns, with few changes. For example, the report says that women are less likely than men to earn degrees in STEM, and Black women are “structurally excluded” from fields like business, computer science and engineering. And when students transfer out of their initial field of study, the problem worsens. Over the past 30 years, the authors found that college major segregation between women of color and white men has increased.
“Field of study segregation by race and gender limits who has access to higher paying occupations,” said Laura Tatum, senior director at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, and one of the authors of the report. “But our postsecondary system does little to interrupt that, and graduates remain segregated across fields of study by gender and race. And that actually gets worse in some ways during the course of postsecondary education.”
Colleges alone don’t cause occupational segregation, but the authors said that addressing segregation among college majors could help address the issue at large.
Related: Why white students are 250% more likely to graduate than Black students at public universities
The authors urged colleges to ensure that majors that lead to high-paying jobs are welcoming and accessible to students from groups underrepresented in those fields; that all majors are inclusive and supportive; that students get access to work experience in their fields of study; and that college is made affordable. They also urged improvement of data collection to better understand and improve the experiences of these students.
Xavier ushers Black students toward careers in STEM by building in support and mentorship, and making it easier for students to get experience that is relevant to their career goals.
“If you think about STEM, the training and the education of a scientist or an engineer is like an apprenticeship from the Middle Ages. You go and work with the Master and the Master will give you a rock and you will chisel that rock. And then he will give you a bigger rock. And he will say ‘Go. You’re good enough. Leave.’”
Reynold Verret, president, Xavier University of Louisiana
Verret said that although not every student comes in with the same level of knowledge or preparation, Xavier tries to help them fill any gaps and then support them in whatever major they select. “The decision to belong in STEM really begins with the students,” Verret said.
To ensure they are supported along the way, the university provides training to boost faculty mentoring and advising skills. In addition to spending classroom time with their professors, many students are also working with them as research assistants, or “junior colleagues,” as Verret calls them.
Xavier has also created research positions as on-campus jobs, so that students who might otherwise need to spend their time waiting tables or stocking shelves to make ends meet can still earn money while working toward their career goals. These research jobs address both the affordability and work experience recommendations that the Georgetown report’s authors suggest to reduce segregation by field of study.
Related: To attract more students to STEM fields in college, advocates urge starting in sixth grade
Verret said that while students build those mentorship relationships with faculty, whom they are learning from and working alongside, the mentorship can also motivate them to persevere.
“I think it’s fundamental human nature – we respond to mentors, we respect mentors, and we work hard for them,” Verret said.
Natalia Cooper, a policy analyst with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, said that making sure that all the students who come in are supported to succeed, is much better than using a “weed out” model where not all students will be able to make it through.
This story about college segregation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.