Perceived Barriers to Higher Education in STEM

This article was published in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Abstract: The underrepresentation of people of color in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) has become an increasing concern nationwide, with efforts focused on understanding mechanisms causing underrepresentation and implementing policies and interventions to increase diversity within STEM fields. Given the structural barriers in educational access and opportunity and the social/psychological barriers facing underrepresented students of color, this study utilizes frameworks of stress, coping, and stigmatization within a sample of 152 high-performing high school students of color to: (a) Examine students’ perceptions of internal and external barriers to STEM higher education, (b) Address the intersectionality of race and gender by assessing whether perceptions of barriers vary by race and gender, (c) Explore relationships between perceived barriers and STEM aspirations, and (d) Examine coping mechanisms to overcome perceived barriers to STEM degrees. Survey and focus group results revealed that despite academic ability, students perceived high levels of internal and external barriers to pursuing STEM studies in higher education. While these perceptions did not impact attitudes toward math and science, they were significantly related to a decrease in STEM career aspirations. Male students perceived significantly fewer internal and external barriers than female students, indicating unique challenges faced by female students of color. Despite perceiving internal and external barriers, students demonstrated confidence in overcoming barriers and discussed positive and adaptive coping strategies. This study concludes with implications for improving opportunities for students of color to enter and persist in STEM fields through K-12, higher education, and out-of-school programming, research, and policy.

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