A new study from the Wisconsin Policy Forum looked at 18 colleges and universities in southeast Wisconsin between 2016 to 2019 to study trends in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees.
The study found that the number of people who graduated from these institutions overall decreased but the percentage of college graduates getting STEM degrees went from 10.2% to 11.6%.
While that number is increasing, it isn’t necessarily doing so equally.
Women made up 58.1% of all college degrees earned over this time but only 23.7% of STEM degrees were awarded to women.
When it comes to race, Black students are also underrepresented in STEM degrees. Black students earned 7.9% of all degrees but only 3.9% finished with STEM degrees. In comparison, white students earned 72.1% of all degrees and 69.4% of STEM degrees went to white students. International students on the other hand made up 3.8% of all degrees but received 12% of STEM degrees
Joe Peterangelo, a senior researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum, says the findings of the study are important because STEM degrees are often tied to higher paying jobs and better growing economies.
“It means for those populations that they’re underrepresented in some very high paying and, in some cases, high growth sectors so that’s concerning,” says Peterangelo.
It's problematic to lock any group out of such lucrative fields.
“Technology has such an impact on our lives. So it's very important to have women and people of color, all people represented in who is developing technology, because of because of that outsize impact those industries have on our lives,” he says.
The fact that international students are overrepresented is could mean that the Milwaukee region experiences some "brain drain," if the students don't stay in the area after graduating. There is not yet data on this. But there are some documented positive impacts in the region because of international students, according to Peterangelo.
“They pay typically non-resident tuition, so they're paying more than an in-state student would. And that's been more of a concern, especially for UW System schools with the in-state tuition freeze,” he says.
Many schools are increasing their K-12 school outreach programs to get underrepresented communities interested in fields like computer science or engineering earlier in their school careers.
“One of the more exciting new initiatives that just was launched in December actually is called the Greater Milwaukee STEM Ecosystem Initiative. And so Milwaukee is now one of about 90 communities across the country that have established these initiatives. And they bring together people in the K-12 system, higher education and the business side all together to focus on STEM and the STEM pipeline, and to try to strengthen it from what they say that the K-20 pipeline, everything from kindergarten to college,” says Peterangelo.