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    Overview of Research on Underrepresented Populations in Graduate Schools
    1. Overview of Research on Underrepresented Populations in Graduate Schools

    Graduate education serves as the catalyst for systemic change in the promotion and development of a diverse professoriate. The list of best practices for recruiting, retaining, and graduating students from underrepresented populations continues to grow, resulting in enclaves of diverse cadres of scholars matriculating in universities across the country. Despite the growing awareness of the increasingly critical need to attract domestic and international candidates to graduate programs, the data continue to reflect a relative dearth of women and minorities in the disciplines of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, with low percentages holding PhD degrees in all disciplines.


    A review of data from the National Science Foundation for the years 1995-2004 shows promising increases in the number of women and domestic minorities who completed bachelor’s degrees in Science and Engineering. In 1995, 363,463 S & E degrees were awarded to women and underrepresented minorities including African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians. In 2004, 433,757 S & E degrees were awarded to women and underrepresented minorities, representing a 19.3% increase. This increase is critical because these holders of the bachelor’s degrees in the STEM disciplines are the primary targets for recruitment into doctoral programs, where the total number of doctoral degrees awarded to women and underrepresented minorities actually decreased between 1996 and 2005. In 1996, approximately 18,648 women and underrepresented minorities earned doctoral degrees in Science and Engineering compared to 16,024 in 2005, representing a -14% change (Frase, 2008).


    In the CGS publication, Broadening Participation in Graduate Education (2009), it is reported that even though enrollment of international students continues to be critical to the success and diversity of graduate programs in the United States, the relative dearth of domestic minorities enrolled in graduate programs is of great concern, particularly in light of the changing demographics in the US. Demographers predict that the largest increases in growth among US citizens will continue to be Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, and yet the number of research doctorates among students from underrepresented populations is 12% and only 10% in the STEM disciplines. The authors distinguish between diversity and inclusiveness. Diversity is defined as a “mix of talented men and women of all ages from all racial/ethnic groups,” including people from impoverished backgrounds, those with disabilities, and first generation graduate students. Inclusiveness is defined as the provision of faculty mentors, research assistantships, and fellowships to students from underrepresented populations--resources that help to ensure the completion of graduate degrees for all students (p. 9).


    In one of the most comprehensive research studies to date of 9,000 doctoral students, their lives, and factors affecting graduation and attrition rates, Nettles and Millett (2006) reported that “approximately forty-five thousand students achieved a doctorate in the United States in 1999,” and international students comprised the majority of those doctorates ((NCES 2002 as cited in Nettles and Millet, 2006, p. xvii). The sample was selected from the top 21 doctoral granting institutions in the country. The findings from their research underscore disparities in opportunities for research assistantships and for research publications, with African Americans reporting the lowest rates of research publications and research assistantships during their doctoral programs. These data are particularly important in that mentoring, supportive environments, and research opportunities are among the strongest predictors of success in doctoral programs and graduation.


    The aforementioned statistics illustrate the need for comprehensive programs designed to increase the number of women and minorities in graduate education, particularly in the STEM disciplines. A summary of the literature on best practices reveals consistent thematic approaches to attract, retain, and graduate students from underrepresented populations.


    McAfee and Ferguson (2006) investigated factors that contributed to the success of underrepresented doctoral students in STEM disciplines. These researchers conducted focus group interviews with minority undergraduate students in STEM disciplines who expressed interest in post-baccalaureate education. They also conducted focus groups with minority graduate students who were enrolled in STEM disciplines on two university campuses. Results indicated that an “Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate” (AGEP) research program was the primary means of introducing and recruiting students at one institution while personal contacts served as a major recruitment tool at the second institution. Other factors reported by students as critical to their recruitment, retention, and graduation included: orientations at the department/program level; meaningful, effective relationships with faculty and staff; securing research funding; tutoring; peer support; opportunities to study and interact with other minority students; and opportunities to select advisors. Some of the factors critical to success were explicit. However, students reported a need for additional introductory information on other less obvious factors, such as the importance of considering personality issues in the selection of advisors.


    Schwartz, Bower, Rice, and Washington (2003) administered surveys to and conducted focus groups with African American women to ascertain their perceptions of factors that led to their completion of graduate degrees in education and found that family members were the primary encouragers and supporters of these women’s decisions to enter and complete the graduate programs. Good mentoring, strong self-efficacy, and a desire to serve as role-models for other minority women were reported as important influential factors.


    The National Academy of Sciences (2007) conducted research on the proportion of women in science and engineering faculty at various research universities. Results from the study highlighted disparities in the number of women represented in affluent positions (i.e., leadership roles). Much of this disparity is due to institutional barriers and structures that unintentionally limit women from climbing the academic ladder. A national committee of university presidents, chancellors, provosts, professors, and government officers developed recommendations for improving the working environments by increasing diversity in esteemed positions. The committee’s findings included the following: women have the motivation to be successful in science and engineering, women with profound interest in science and engineering often experience difficulty in climbing the academic ladder, the pipeline as a recruitment tactic needs to be expanded, women in science and engineering often experience discrimination and biases, women are evaluated subjectively, and hierarchical structures contribute to the under-use of women in the sciences. The overarching theme focused on the importance of creating more space for women in science and engineering. The reality is that limiting the number of professional women in these areas delimits the overall growth and success of this field. Future recommendations for closing the gender gap include involving leaders, faculty members, and scientific professionals to work interdependently to develop inter-institution monitoring systems, setting equity standards (particularly in university and federally funded agencies), increasing educational opportunities, decreasing bias, and working with government agencies to encourage the enforcement of anti-discrimination policies.


    In the article, “Becoming Mathematicians: Women and Students of Color Choosing and Leaving Doctoral Mathematics,” Herzig (2004) critically evaluated factors that influence decision-making about degree completion in mathematics among women and minorities and constructed a model of persistence. Students who participated in departmental activities were far more likely to persist to degree completion than those who were uninvolved. The deeper the level of participation, the greater the students’ understanding of the culture, the greater likelihood of graduation. Herzig’s description of culture included the students’ awareness of the value of faculty-student exchanges, relevance, and application of the knowledge base to the profession, and the epistemology. Herzig illuminates the similarities of completion rates in Mathematics to those in the Humanities and concluded astutely that, unlike the Science and Engineering disciplines that involve students in laboratory experiences with mentors early in the program, students in doctoral programs in Mathematics and Humanities tend to spend the early years of their study in lecture-based coursework with little opportunity for sustained engagement with faculty members.  Students who have early and frequent opportunities for meaningful involvement with the research and professional activities of faculty members are more likely to persist through degree completion. Historically, women and minorities have reported limited opportunities and exposure to this level of faculty involvement. In the classic work by Berg and Ferber (as cited in Nettles & Millett, 2006), males felt valued by their faculty mentors and respected as novices in the discipline, and thus were more likely to graduate. Herzig issues a clarion call to provide more opportunities for underrepresented doctoral students in Mathematics to become involved and entrenched in the department culture in meaningful, relevant ways as a critical strategy to increase the number of women and minority graduates.


    The seminal work by Maton and Hrabowski III (2004) emphasized “a strengths-based approach” to increasing African American PhDs in the Sciences and Engineering. Much of the previous research in the area of minority recruitment has targeted deficiencies in the educational preparation of students from underrepresented populations; thus program development focused on remediation. However, Maton and Hrabowski III posit that the philosophy undergirding the “Meyerhoff Scholars Program” is focused on success and built around strengths. Most scholars in graduate education consider the Meyerhoff Scholars’ Program to be one of the most effective in the country. Started in 1988 at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program is structured around 14 factors that contribute to the program’s success. These 14 areas are listed here because they reflect a holistic, empirically-based, systems approach to the successful recruitment and graduation of African American doctoral students in the STEM disciplines. The 14 components are “financial aid, recruitment, summer bridge programs, study groups, program values (program values include support for academic achievement, assistance from a variety of sources, peer supportiveness, and high academic goals), building community (including a campus residency requirement), personal advising and tutoring, summer research internships, faculty involvement, administrative support, personal mentors, family involvement, and community service” (pp. 548-550).


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