Feedback
News

More Latinos With STEM Degrees Needed, Here Are Top Schools Doing It

Image: FILE: FCC To Vote On Net Neutrality Regulations

File photo of network cables plugged in a server room on November 10, 2014 in New York City. Michael Bocchieri / Getty Images

More Latinos are now graduating with postsecondary degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but they continue to be significantly underrepresented in the total number of STEM credentials earned.

A new report released Wednesday by Excelencia in Education found that Latinos earned more STEM credentials across all academic levels—including associate, bachelor and graduate degrees—over the last few years. However, only 9 percent of STEM degrees and certificates went to Latinos in 2013.

The report lists the top 25 colleges and universities that are graduating Latinos in STEM. Those schools are primarily located in three states—California, Florida, Texas—and Puerto Rico. The majority of them are Hispanic-Serving Institutions, which means over a quarter of their student body is Hispanic.

At the Bachelor degree level, top schools are the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, Florida International University and the University of Texas at El Paso. At the Master's level, the top are the Universidad Politecnica in P.R., and again Florida International University and University of Texas at El Paso. At the doctorate level, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas at El Paso are awarding the most Latino degrees.

The top three awarding Associate degrees are South Texas College, San Jacinto Community College and University of Phoenix-Online.

Only 2 percent of all higher education institutions graduated 33 percent of Latinos who earned STEM degrees in 2013. Deborah A. Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, said this "should make it easier" for employers to know where to find STEM-educated Latinos.

"The reason we put the top 25 list together was to say to employers, 'If you're looking for Latinos, this is where they are graduating,'" said Santiago, whose group uses data to study best practices aimed at increasing Latino college completion.

Increasing the number of Hispanics pursuing STEM careers is key to the United States' current and future workforce. One way to do that, Santiago said, is by getting Latinos engaged in STEM at an early age. That includes teaching them about the occupational opportunities available in the STEM fields and showing them the pathway to get there.

This list will come in handy for employers, as occupations in STEM are projected to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 1 million new STEM jobs will be created in the United States between 2012 and 2022. Even now, there are STEM jobs that are going unfilled.

Horacio Gutiérrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel at Microsoft, said Latinos have an opportunity to fill these jobs.

"There are tens of thousands of jobs in the Untied States—certainly thousands of jobs in the technology field—that are currently not being filled because of the unavailability of talent in the country," he said. "So we have an opportunity by increasing the pipeline of Latinos in the STEM fields of matching them with those jobs."

Gutiérrez also noted that the underrepresentation of Latinos in STEM is "severe." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos accounted for just 6.5 percent of the STEM workforce in 2011, even though they made up about 17 percent of the U.S. population. He stressed that the United States needs more people with diverse backgrounds—not just Latinos—to pursue careers in STEM.

"If we as a nation want to maintain our position as a global leader in technological innovation, it is critical that our science and technology industry reflect the full diversity of America," Gutiérrez said.

Andrés Henríquez, board member of Excelencia in Education and former program officer at the National Science Foundation, said one of the reasons why Latinos often don't pursue careers in STEM is because they don't have a clear idea of what a job in STEM looks like—and neither do their parents.

"We know what a teacher is because we've gone through the K-12 system. We know what a doctor is because we have to go visit a doctor occasionally," said Henríquez said. "But when we try to picture a scientist or an engineer, it's very hard to think about what that looks like. That needs to be better communicated and defined."

Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, said it's also difficult to keep Latino students interested in STEM throughout high school. "We find that they are overwhelmingly interested in STEM fields as freshmen, and then their interest drops perceptibly by the time they're seniors," he said.

In an effort to address this, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation has set up a number of STEM-related programs in various parts of the country. One of those programs is called Code as a Second Language. The program consists of having technology professionals go into middle schools and high schools for eight weeks to teach students about computer coding. Similar programs also exist for other STEM fields.

"It's critical to reach out to them at a young age," Tijerino said. "But you also have to continue in middle school and then really hit it hard in high school, because that's when they make decisions about what to study in college."

Esther Avila Rodriguez is proof that these types of STEM-focused programs work. The 17-year-old said being part of the robotics team at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix sparked her interest in STEM. In May, she graduated a year early with a 4.75 GPA. She'll begin pursuing a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Arizona State University in the fall.

Rodriguez did not hesitate to admit that math and science did not come easy to her in high school. "I had a lot of struggle with it," she said. "But I knew that I just needed to work hard and ask a lot of questions until I got the concept."

That wasn't the case for Antonio L. Esqueda, who earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Arizona State University and was recently hired as a project engineer for a geotechnical company called Magnus Pacific. The 24-year old said he was always good at math and science growing up.

When asked why he decided to pursue a career in STEM, he said, "I wanted to get a good job so that I could help out my family. They work really hard for very little money." His mom is a school janitor and his dad works in landscaping. Both of them are immigrants from Mexico.

Latinos—like Rodriguez and Esqueda—who do go on to college to pursue a career in STEM usually end up graduating with bachelorette degrees, rather than more advanced degrees. According to the Excelencia in Education report, half of all STEM credentials earned by Latinos in 2013 were bachelor's degrees and only 10 percent were graduate degrees. That limits their ability to access some of the highest paying occupations in STEM.

The report also found that once in STEM, Latinos are more likely to end up in service occupations, like mechanical engineering technician and computer support specialist. Though salaries range from $40,000-$75,000, these service jobs are among the lower paying occupations within STEM.

Dr. Gabriel A. Montaño, research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Latinos often shy away from pursuing advanced college degrees that lead to higher paying STEM jobs for a number of reasons. One of them is the "grueling" process that it takes to get these kinds of degree.

"If you want to get an advanced degree in science, for example, it's a long road. You'll be pushing 30, if not older, before you finish school," he said. "It's a tough route that for many of us is not amenable because we have responsibilities. In many cases, we take care of families at a very young age—from us having kids to taking care of our grandmas or grandpas and people in our families that can't work any longer."

Another reason many Latinos don't pursue more postgraduate degrees in subjects like chemistry or math is they don't know that unlike medical school or law school, these degrees come with stipends and are not funded by the student.

Montaño is also president of the Society for Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. He said that over the last decade, his group has been working to not only get more Latinos and Native Americans to pursue careers in science, but also to encourage them to hold positions of leadership in science.

"By 2050, the white population is going to be a minority in this country and Latinos will make up about 29 percent of the population," Montaño added. "Unless we diversify where our educated come from within STEM, we will no longer have the necessary workforce to actually fulfill the jobs that are being created."

Follow NBC News Latino on Facebook and Twitter