Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

STEM Success: U Mass Boston Is Standing out from Its Famous Neighbors Due to Its High Enrollment of Minorities in the College of Mathematics and Science

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

STEM Success: U Mass Boston Is Standing out from Its Famous Neighbors Due to Its High Enrollment of Minorities in the College of Mathematics and Science

Article excerpt

Under a new, Harvard-trained dean of science and mathematics, the University of Massachusetts Boston set out to increase the number and diversity of students enrolled in STEM.

Seven years later, Boston's only public university has achieved both goals, despite competition from MIT, Harvard and other private universities that fuel the growing technology sector of the area's economy. Enrollment in the College of Mathematics and Science at UMass Boston has nearly doubled and, at the same time, become majority-minority. About 56 percent of the students are of color, with 35 percent enrollment from minorities who are underrepresented in STEM.

"We have the most diverse college at UMass Boston, which is not that typical for STEM. We have all kinds of diversity," says Dr. Andrew Grosovsky, dean of the College of Mathematics and Science. "Half of our students are women, which is a huge thing for STEM. We have a lot of language diversity, a tremendous amount of first-generation [students] and economically disadvantaged folks."

In 2010, Forbes rated the best colleges for underrepresented minorities in STEM, based on whether student diversity in those fields matched the school's overall enrollment. Of the 20 schools that made the list, two are comparable to UMass Boston--the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Georgia Southern University. Today, in comparison, UMass Boston would break into the top 20 because its enrollment of underrepresented minorities in STEM slightly exceeds 32 percent of the entire student body.

But Grosovsky says he knows that bringing students of color into STEM is not enough--seeing them graduate is what matters. On that measure, UMass Boston also appears to be making progress.

About 40 percent of those STEM freshmen who entered in 2009 benefited from new academic support services and graduated after four years, nearly all in STEM fields--a degree completion rate comparable to the national level. Grosovsky estimates a similar proportion of underrepresented minorities in that group completed their degrees.

From tracking credit hours and grades, Grosovsky says he expects graduation rates in upcoming years to rise above 50 percent, reflecting the increased number of students who received academic support in successive freshman classes.

Both Chancellor J. Keith Motley and Grosovsky say the effort is off to a good start, but acknowledge that boosting STEM diversity on commencement day remains a work in progress.

"It's exciting. We're still writing the story," Motley says. "We're on chapter one."

Freshman communities

Since arriving from the University of California, Riverside in 2007, Grosovsky has launched a number of initiatives to improve student outcomes and diversity in the College of Science and Mathematics.

One of those initiatives includes "Freshman Success Communities," which groups together two dozen students with the same major in their first-year courses and lab sections. The communities reflect the college's diversity. A professor advises each community and instructs members in a science seminar that freshmen are required to take.

The communities, which other colleges have used, are academic support groups that better connect their members to a commuter school that has many older, working students who spend little time on campus outside of class. Grosovsky compares the role of the communities to undergraduate houses at Harvard, where he earned his doctorate in biology.

"We had to create a greater sense of engagement and belonging," the dean explains. "We wanted them to engage with other students, faculty, advisors [and] academic support staff. We wanted them to feel this is their university, [that] they know people [and] can feel comfortable as part of this community"

The college started with two communities and gradually expanded to 13; now, more than half of the current freshman class belongs to a community. …

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