STEM graduates up slightly in southeastern Wisconsin but disparities persist, report says

Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall on MSOE's campus.

Last updated on January 22nd, 2021 at 01:39 pm

Southeastern Wisconsin is showing slight gains in the number of STEM graduates coming out of its colleges, but women and Black students continue to be underrepresented in the field, according to a new Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

The number of STEM graduates rose even as the total number of graduates in the region decreased somewhat between 2016-’19, with STEM degrees accounting for 11.6% of all degrees awarded by higher ed institutions in 2019, compared to 10.2% in 2016.

In total, the region’s higher education institutions produced 11,623 STEM graduates, including 8,973 who earned bachelor’s degrees or higher and 2,650 who completed associate degree programs, in those four years.

Growth in STEM graduates hasn’t been linear, however. The peak came in 2017, followed by two years of slight declines, according to the report.

The WPF report analyzed data collected by Higher Education Regional Alliance (HERA), a collaboration of 18 higher ed institutions in southeastern Wisconsin.

The region is roughly in line with the national average when it comes to representation of women among new STEM graduates. According to the report, women earned 25.3% of STEM degrees at the bachelor’s level or higher in the region between 2016-’19, compared to the national average of 26.6% during the 2017-’18 academic year.

“It has been widely documented and analyzed for decades both locally and nationally, with a large body of research pointing to a variety of contributing factors, including a lack of female role models in STEM fields, longstanding stereotypes regarding which fields are appropriate for women versus men, and structural biases that fail to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for both women and people of color to study and work,” the report said.

Meanwhile, Black students earned 3.9% of all degrees in STEM fields among the region’s higher ed institutions between 2016-‘19 and 7.9% of degrees overall.

“Colleges and universities in southeast Wisconsin have produced thousands of science, technology, engineering, and math graduates over the last four years, infusing the region with the type of talent many view as critical to innovation and economic growth,” the report said. “Yet, women and Black students remain highly underrepresented among STEM graduates relative to their share among all college graduates.”

Among the region’s colleges, international students account for 3.8% of all graduates but 12% of those who earned STEM degrees or certificates. That trend is even more pronounced at the master’s and doctorate level, with international students earning almost half of the graduate degrees awarded in STEM fields (43.6%), the report said.

It’s unknown how many of those graduates are retained in the region, however.

“The fact that international students, who generally pay higher non-resident tuition, are earning almost half of the region’s advanced degrees in STEM fields may help the finances of institutions coping with declining enrollment (and for UW System schools, an in-state undergraduate tuition freeze) in recent years,” the report said. “Yet the trend raises questions about the extent to which the regional economy is benefiting from educating those students locally given that many may return to their home countries after graduation or pursue opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. or internationally.”

The report noted that higher ed institutions have made efforts to increase STEM participation among women and people of color in recent years, such as the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s outreach programs for K-12 students and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Girls Who Code program and EnQuest summer camp.

In December, MSOE, Northwestern Mutual, the Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition and STEM Forward announced the launch of the Greater Milwaukee STEM Ecosystem Initiative, which aims to strengthen the region’s K-20 STEM pipelines.

Next steps for the region could include participating in the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s Extension Services program (an initiative to increase women’s participation in undergraduate and graduate computing programs) and making more intentional efforts to retain international students, the report said.

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