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CUNY’s STEM graduates nearly double in a decade but disparities persist, study finds

November 25, 2020 Gabriel Sandoval, THE CITY
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Graduates of science and tech disciplines nearly doubled in the last decade at the public City University of New York, but racial and gender disparities persist, a new report released Tuesday found.

The study, conducted by the Center for an Urban Future, found that CUNY students earning degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics — fields known collectively as STEM — rose to 9,013 last year.

That’s up 93 percent from the academic year ending in 2010, when the public university system graduated 4,671.

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“Our research shows that CUNY is making enormous progress,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center, a nonprofit think tank. “They are churning out thousands of lower income people of color with highly specialized technology degrees.”

Nineteen of 20 STEM degree-awarding CUNY colleges achieved gains since the 2015-16 academic year, the first year that degree data by major and college was available. Kingsborough Community College was the exception, falling by 5.8 percent.

Graduates of tech, a broad area of study that includes computer science and information technology, increased the most, rising from 1,597 in 2009-’10 to 3,907 in 2018-’19. They were followed by their peers in engineering, science and math.

The study also found the number of female, male, Black, white, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders STEM graduates all increased.

But disparities remained for populations already underrepresented in STEM fields.

Among them:

  • CUNY’s Black or Hispanic students earned 31 percent of computer science degrees last year, while representing 55 percent of the student body.
  • In the same year, 19 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women — while women comprise 58 percent of the CUNY student population overall.
  • Most underrepresented were Hispanic women, who earned 7 percent of all STEM degrees and 4 percent of degrees in technology. Hispanic women make up 18 percent of the CUNY student body.

A CUNY spokesperson said the university is proud to be a national leader in providing opportunities for low-income students to succeed in STEM fields. In recent years, CUNY has been recognized for its track record of elevating low-income students to the middle class.

“The University nonetheless recognizes that more work needs to be done to achieve fully representative outcomes and is firmly committed to building on the outstanding progress of the past 10 years in creating access to technology careers for New Yorkers from lower-income, diverse backgrounds,” said the spokesperson, Frank Sobrino.

Mayoral cheerleading

Bowles said that with some New Yorkers departing during the pandemic or the possibility of fewer college grads flocking to the city because of the current crisis, it’s even more important that New York groom its own population for technology jobs.

“For too long we haven’t seen some New Yorkers bring those qualifications to the table and it’s something that we need to improve and expand on,” Bowles told THE CITY.

In his 2017 State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to do just that. Called New York Works, the initiative aims to create 100,000 well-paying tech jobs by 2027. The plan’s 2019 progress update declared that the city was on track, with 3,725 jobs.

Through the plan, the city teamed with NYC Tech Talent Pipeline, launching CUNY 2x Tech with the goal of increasing the number of students awarded bachelor’s degrees in tech fields at CUNY from 1,000 to 2,000 by 2022.

Hunter College, Lehman College, City College of New York, Brooklyn College, John Jay College, the College of Staten Island, Medgar Evers College and Queens College were the CUNY campuses chosen to participate in the initiative.

Seeking inclusive employers

The Center’s study suggested several ways that recruitment and degree attainment could be improved, including bolstering K-12 STEM programs and providing students greater support for their “economic, academic and emotional needs.”

“In order to help more low-income students earn a credential in the months ahead, the city and state should expand support for CUNY’s efforts to provide childcare, food and housing assistance, mental health counseling, and screening for benefits, among other basic needs, which will help ensure that more of CUNY’s low-income students are able to stay enrolled and graduate,” the study’s authors wrote.

To further close the gender and racial gaps in degree attainment, minor tweaks aren’t going to cut it, said Juvanie Piquant, CUNY’s student trustee and a junior at the New York City College of Technology, also known as City Tech, in Brooklyn.

“Key systemic changes need to change across our country and our institution as a whole,” Piquant said.

She added that CUNY and employers should include a diverse array of voices in their conversations about recruiting, removing barriers to access and adapting their culture.

“Let’s ensure that we’re not only just including people of color and women of color for diversity purposes, but they are contributing, too, and they have a place where they can excel and thrive,” she said.

Striving in the minority

City Tech was one of several CUNY colleges where the number of STEM graduates increased.

That’s where 19-year-old Destiny Desilva studies mechanical engineering. A sophomore whose family hails from Panama, Desilva said she’s been either the only female in classes for her major, or she is one of five at most.

She said she draws inspiration and support from the other women in her classes.

“This field is not easy, it is really not easy, but it is definitely possible for any woman out there who decides to choose this major or any major in the engineering field,” she said.

After graduation, she hopes to work in a mechanic shop, building, fixing and customizing cars.

“As I grow in this field,” Desilva said, “I can set an example for other women to let them know that they can also work in this field and they have the chance and the opportunity and the brains to be able to be an engineer as well, no matter what the circumstances is.”

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