Increasing Educational Opportunities in STEM: 6 Years After the STEM Education Act

stem education

September 27, 2021 marks the sixth anniversary of the passage of the STEM Education Act, legislation meant to strengthen federal efforts around science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs as well as broaden the definition of STEM to help fund computer sciences. 

A Brief Background on the Act and its Importance 

The bill was derived from language used in the America COMPETES Act, and directs the National Science Foundation to award merit-based grants that support educational STEM opportunities in and out of the classroom. 

After receiving bipartisan support, the STEM Education Act was signed into law by former President Barack Obama in 2015. The bill consists of three parts: 

  1. Expanding research and training opportunities for math and science teachers through a National Science Foundation Scholarship program. 
  2. Boosting research in information STEM education through the National Science Foundation. 
  3. Explicitly incorporating “computer science” into the definition of STEM education for federal research purposes.

Incorporating “computer science” into the definition was tactical, and helped align federal education programs with a rapidly growing tech industry. Although the U.S. remains a global leader in technology and innovation, racial disparities within the STEM field hinder its true potential. 

Racial Inequities Within STEM 

The abundance of STEM work is expected to outpace that of other occupations in the coming years, with STEM jobs ranking higher on the pay scale.

However, a recent Pew Research study found that Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce, and continue to make up a lower percentage of STEM graduates compared to the rest of the population. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise — according to the National Science Foundation, the STEM workforce was 89% white in 2018. Furthermore, a University of Illinois study found that students of color in STEM majors felt excluded among their peers in the same program and experienced racial microaggressions from both students and teachers. 

Increasing diversity in STEM not only fosters a culture of inclusivity, but is also a necessity for the U.S. to remain an innovative workforce. 

Student Freedom Initiative’s Commitment To Increasing Diversity in STEM

Last year, philanthropist Robert F. Smith helped start Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit in part focused on addressing disproportionate Black student loan debt by creating payment alternatives for students in order to combat systemic issues that affect issues of personal debt. 

Student Freedom Initiative will officially launch this fall, and will offer educational and career help to all students as well as financial alternatives to STEM majors at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The nonprofit launches with funding in the form of a $50 million personal donation from Smith, along with a $50 million grant from Fund II Foundation, where Smith is the founding director and President. Student Freedom Initiative offers an income-contingent loan alternative for eligible junior and senior STEM majors, as well as tutoring, technological support and paid internship opportunities to students at participating schools. 

There are currently 11 HBCUs partnered with Student Freedom Initiative for the 2021-22 academic year. With students of color more likely to drop out because of high-interest debt, Smith’s ideas behind the organization aim to give students the freedom to follow their desired career path without worrying about the financial limitations caused by high-interest loan payments.

Learn more about Smith’s work to improve racial equity in STEM and in corporate settings, including internships.