Lorelle Espinosa: Helping Hispanic College Students Pursue Degrees in STEM Fields

Imagine a world in which all people can reach their full potential by participating and succeeding in postsecondary education. That is the singular vision of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to access and success in postsecondary education around the world. It is committed to equality of opportunity for all and helps low-income, minority and other historically underrepresented populations gain access and achieve success in higher education.

One particular focus for the organization has been strengthening pathways for minority students to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, often referred to as STEM fields. Working closely with Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) through a variety of national as well as campus-based initiatives, IHEP has helped schools strengthen their STEM offerings. In the process, it has developed a national model that helps major colleges and universities diversify the pool of students pursuing these majors and close the achievement gaps in STEM education for Black, Hispanic and Native American students.

Profiled in a 2007 IHEP publication titled A Model of Success: The Model Institutions for Excellence Program’s Successful Leadership in STEM Education, it consists of a comprehensive set of proven strategies that include: 1) recruitment and pre-college transition initiatives, 2) student support, 3) undergraduate research, 4) faculty development, 5) curriculum development, 6) physical infrastructure and 7) graduate and science career initiatives. 

As IHEP’s director of policy and strategic initiatives, Lorelle Espinosa, Ph.D., has been working hard to increase the number of minority students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In this role, she establishes and manages collaborative external partnerships and initiatives to meet key organizational objectives for advancing college access and success for all students, with particular attention paid to underrepresented groups.

One initiative she oversees is the Pathways to College Network, an alliance of national organizations committed to working collaboratively to advance college access and success for underserved students, including those who are the first in their families to go to college, low-income students, underrepresented minorities and students with disabilities.

According to the IHEP Web site, the program emphasizes connecting policymakers, education leaders and practitioners, and community and philanthropic leaders with research on effective strategies for improving college preparation, enrollment and completion. In its 11th year, the initiative was formalized when 14 national organizations, six funders, and then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley signed a pledge to greatly increase the nation’s commitment and capacity to give all young people, not just those from advantaged backgrounds, a first-class postsecondary education.

The approach, at the beginning of the program and now, includes a strong emphasis on academic preparation at the secondary school level, college planning that involves parents, and tutoring and counseling once at college. Fast forward to 2009, when President Obama announced his 2020 goals for education, which included a commitment to increase the number of our nation’s students studying STEM fields.

While a specific STEM-focused approach is not formally part of the Pathways to College program, Espinosa believes the same tactics, applied to an additional level of counseling, can help increase the number of minority students embarking upon STEM studies.

Lorelle Espinoza

“Adequate preparation in math is one area which is critical to success in pursuing a STEM major in college because math is so foundational to these majors,” explained Espinosa. “You almost can’t start early enough in math because if a student gets derailed in math courses early on in school, it can be almost impossible to catch up in time to start college math at an appropriate level to pursue a STEM major.”

In addition to keeping up with the front line tactics, Espinosa also works to ensure that the research community and the policymaker community have strong, evidence-based research to support tactics that enhance student preparation. According to Espinosa, much of the data in support of bolstering pathways to STEM majors, and ultimately careers, for minorities and particularly Hispanics, spans two distinct fronts. One argument relates to social justice/equity while the other focuses on an economic and global imperative to keep the United States competitive in the STEM arena.

From Espinosa’s point of view, the social justice/equity argument can be summed up in her idea of how to define success in this initiative to increase minorities in STEM fields. “Students should have the right to choose to enter higher education and choose their field of study,” she said. “That would be an amazing first step, but the reality is that many students don’t get to choose to enter college or choose to major in a STEM field because their academic preparation was lacking, they lacked good role models, and went to schools with high teacher turnover and low resources. And these are barriers that still exist. The good news is that there is a high level of awareness of these barriers and that there is dialogue about how to remove these barriers. Still, there is much work to be done on that front.”

Espinosa believes that increased cross-sector collaboration can help: active communication and partnership between K-12 and higher education, between two-year and four-year schools and between the business sector and higher education. “What is most exciting right now is that there is a national focus on this issue, from the president to the philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation that are supporting the president’s college goals,” said Espinosa.

On the economic front, she says the equation is quite simple: with agrowing number of jobs that require STEM degrees or certificates and a growing population of Hispanics, it makes sense to target this large population segment in order to build the pipeline of students in STEM fields to ultimately fill these jobs. And on a secondary front, college education is seen as a significant economic driver: the more people who are college educated, the more robust the economy will be.

One avenue that remains relatively untapped when it comes to increasing the number of minority and especially Hispanic students in STEM fields is the community college. Unfortunately, according to Espinosa, many underestimate the role community colleges can provide, and this is seen in the low number of community college students accepted at four-year schools, especially in STEM majors. The feeling is that the four-year schools prefer to educate their potential graduates from the beginning. But a look at the data indicates that a shift in mindset is needed. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more than half of students at two-year schools intend to transfer to four-year institutions. Further, more Hispanics start their college education at twoyear schools, so it makes sense to enhance the pathway to four-year schools by providing appropriate academic support, academic rigor and matriculation agreements.

One very important player in increasing the number of minority students in STEM fields is the National Science Foundation, which provides grants to MSIs for access and retention programs. Espinosa believes the organization has played an important role in setting the direction for grant giving in this area. But a recently proposed change to how the grants are awarded has concerned her.

Previously, separate grants existed for specific minority-focused STEM programs so that like schools competed against each other. The current proposal would combine all STEM grants into a single pool for which all MSIs as well as non-MSIs would compete, promoting a huge outpouring of concern and frustration from MSIs. “The irony here,” explains Espinosa, “is that the NSF is not providing any data in support of this decision. For a scientific enterprise, this is certainly concerning.” While she can appreciate the NSF’s desire to broaden participation in the initiative, she believes a better-articulated plan is needed.

Those sentiments are similar to Espinosa’s views on the issue as a whole. “Long-term investment in students is really important. A lot of short term-ism goes on in the world. In order to be truly successful increasing the number of minority students in STEM fields, we need a long-term strategy.”

And that is precisely what Espinosa and IHEP’s partner organizations are dedicating their efforts toward, ensuring future success for countless students as well as our nation.