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The Problems of Minority Group Students in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering (Abstract of Section)


Author(s) Nancy M. Hewitt Elaine Seymour

A discussion of the experiences of (separately) Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American S&E students, such as family backgrounds, high school preparation, acceptance and use of minority programs, and perceptions of problems encountered in school. Abstracted from the book "Factors Contributing to High Attrition Rates Among Science and Engineering Undergraduate Majors".

Author(s): Nancy M. Hewitt and Elaine Seymour

Hewitt and Seymour intentionally oversampled four minority groups, during their study, on attrition from S&E majors. All minority students interviewed were American-born, including blacks (27%), Hispanics (36%), Asians (24%), and Native Americans (12%). Minority group students were almost evenly divided between switchers and non-switchers, with slightly more non-switchers (55%) than switchers.

Each ethnic group expressed a distinctive set of perceptions, expectations, and reactions to problems within S&E majors. More similarities between students were found within each particular group than across all the ethnic groups. As a result, each group will be discussed separately in terms of family background, high school preparation, acceptance and use of minority programs, and perceptions of problems they encountered as S&E students.

Black Students

The socioeconomic range for the black students interviewed was very wide, and they were equally diverse in their attitudes, problems, and campus affiliations. At one extreme of identification with black culture were students with very light complexions who intentionally passed as "exotic" (e.g., Hawaiian, Samoan, or Greek) and avoided social or political contact with other blacks on campus. At the other extreme were those who felt more comfortable associating exclusively with their own ethnic group and felt a strong sense of responsibility for promoting affirmative action opportunities and campus policy statements related to racial harassment.

Generally, black students who received minority scholarships or attended the smaller universities were more likely to join black campus organizations.

Black students' level of high school preparation correlated with their socioeconomic background rather than their ethnicity. Black students experiencing academic difficulty used tutors provided by minority programs, if available.

Black students enrolled in the smaller college and private university did not speak of finding any racial discrimination on their campus, whereas those at the large universities spoke of "subtle racism," which made itself known more by avoidance than by confrontation.

Hispanic Students

Only those Hispanic students enrolled at the small liberal arts college and coming from upper-middle-class families were able to attend school without holding down a job.

Students raised in barrios or in areas of high Hispanic concentration explained the importance of family in their culture and how this affects success in college. The extended family and Hispanic community tend to be extremely close-knit. Students coming to a large university from this type of environment experienced feelings of separation and isolation, intensified by the lack of understanding of their culture on the part of Anglo faculty and students.

Students from high schools that did not provide them with an adequate educational background (e.g., in computers) felt they began college already well behind other students. Several Hispanic students earning respectable grades in their S&E courses still experienced feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem when forced to function in a highly competitive, individualistic, and assertive Anglo culture. In response they tended to form exclusively Hispanic peer group clusters for mutual moral support in what (for them) was an alien environment. To avoid attracting negative attention, they turned to each other for assistance with personal and academic problems and were very reluctant to approach faculty in times of academic difficulty.

Asian Students

The Asian students interviewed had all maintained very good GPA's throughout their course work and generally had excellent math skills. However, those who switched out of S&E majors felt they had been pushed into science and math by well-intentioned teachers who connected Asian ancestry with natural mathematical ability. Asian switchers had come to see their original majors as imposed, rather than chosen.

Asian switchers also expressed discomfort with their image as the "successful minority," and each struggled with feelings of failure at not living up to what they had been encouraged to believe was their responsibility to family and former teachers.

The success that many Asian students have in S&E fields has sometimes been described as a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that belief that a thing is possible may be sufficient to bring it about. However, expectations of certain talents and inclinations of Asian students may result in fulfillment of a student's externally-directed destiny.

Native American Students

The majority of Native American students interviewed came from reservations. The validity of the minority status of Native Americans who came from cities proved to be questionable (e.g., a blonde, blue-eyed student with German surname and one Chippewa grandfather had received a minority scholarship).

Native Americans schooled on reservations had received mathematics preparation that was seriously deficient compared with that of most Anglo students. Native American students tended to be very self-effacing: they seemed reluctant to question authority and did not mix with other students either socially or in study groups. In some cases, they reported failing a course rather than having asked for assistance from a faculty member or T.A. They did not seek out tutoring without prompting.

All Native American students were receiving financial aid; all were attempting to work at least thirty hours a week to supplement it. A family crisis or celebration was likely to draw them back to their home reservation and away from attending classes. This had a negative effect on their grades.

Native Americans are tied to tribe as well as to family, and most said they felt compelled to return to the reservation after graduation. For Native Americans, success in college and career (particularly in S&E majors) often comes at the cost of family and cultural identity. An inability to accept such a loss was a major factor spurring Native Americans into non-S&E fields. Those who remained often planned health-related careers as a way of using their S&E degrees on the reservation. Non-switchers dealt with their feelings of cultural alienation either by reliance on a Native American support group on campus and/or by early marriage.

Minority Students in S&E Majors

Apart from problems of cultural alienation and stereotyping, no separate set of factors was found to contribute to switching or persistence among minority S&E students that distinguished them from Anglo counterparts. However, problems contributing to switching tended to be more pronounced among minorities, since:

  • The poorest of the poor among switchers and non-switchers alike were minority students.
  • Among those who reported high school preparation inadequate, the preparation of minorities seemed to be worst.
  • Minorities had the worst difficulty in dealing with large classes, competitive grading, and impersonal faculty attitudes.

When minority students could not surmount their difficulties they were far more likely than Anglo students to drop out of school entirely than to switch majors.

A greater propensity for self-blame was found among minority switchers than among Anglo switchers. For nearly all minority students, switching from a S&E major was viewed as personal failure. Comments reflecting the anguish involved in deciding to switch majors, the sense of having let down the family, and the sense of having lost face in the community were far more likely to come from minority switchers than from Anglo switchers.

For minority students, the belief that they are a disappointment to their family may keep them from making a switch to a major that holds more interest for them or to one for which they are better qualified.

Minority Programs

Minority programs at the institutions examined were designed to recruit, assist, and retain students in pursuit of college degrees. All were motivated by good intentions; however, students clearly saw that they were built on erroneous assumptions which undermined their effectiveness.

These programs appeared to be based on stereotypic notions of students' family backgrounds, educational preparation, academic abilities, and financial needs. As no one assumes all white male students have the same socioeconomic advantages or disadvantages and share the same financial or educational background, neither should minority programs assume that all Hispanics need remedial math, that all black students come from the ghettos, that everyone with a minority surname is a minority, or that all Asian students are naturally drawn to mathematics and science.

Hewitt and Seymour are concerned that minority programs (as found to be administered in their study) may unwittingly reflect racial stereotyping and fuel new forms of interracial hostility on campus.

Perceptions of Racism

Most minority students perceived a "subtle racism" rooted in a hostile atmosphere coming from Anglo students and some faculty. After speaking with white students, Hewitt and Seymour believed that minority students' perceptions of antagonism from white S&E students were accurate.

During discussions with Anglo (only) students, resentment and hostility were expressed toward minority students. What most Anglo students resented was not the presence of minority students in S&E majors, but the financial assistance targeted on the basis of race and without consideration of financial need. Giving a "free ride" (or at least extra help) to minorities from middle-class and professional families was seen as especially unfair by Anglo students from poorer families, many of whom worked long hours in low-paying jobs to augment the declining amounts they could qualify for in grants or aid from public funds. This animosity was mostly directed toward students of doubtful minority status.

Affirmative action practices in post-graduation hiring also provoked universal rejection by Anglo students. This could intensify as economic recession constricts hiring in some S&E fields.

The following may also fuel racial hostility on campuses:

  • Recent cutbacks in student aid coupled with the declining value of this aid.
  • Increases in college costs.
  • Diminished ability of families to finance tuition expenditures.

Such evidence not only suggests that a campus climate of racial hostility is overt and growing, but also establishes one important cause of the problem.

--Abstract by the staff of the Online Ethics Center.

Original book by Nancy M. Hewitt and Elaine Seymour.

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Cite this page: "The Problems of Minority Group Students in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering (Abstract of Section)" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 7/14/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, December 11, 2016 <>