Equity through Education: Advancing Careers of Female and Minority Graduates in Online Graduate Programs


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Brief Abstract

Through this session we will evaluate how disparities for women and minorities in online graduate STEM education can be addressed. Based on current literature and survey results, attendees will explore perceptions, stereotypes, specific needs, teaching approaches, and learner-centric course design & delivery to address inequity in online graduate courses.

Extended Abstract

Pursuing graduate education is a major driving factor that impacts career advancement and economic changes for an individual. The impact is not equal though with women and racial/ethnic minorities deriving a larger benefit from a graduate degree compared to their male, primarily white, counterparts. This has been shown in numerous publications but not explicitly for online graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. We conducted an exit survey to evaluate the economic changes, career advancement, and job mobility of graduates from several graduate certificate and MS programs offered at a College of Pharmacy over the course of 17 years. The survey respondents were representative of enrollment in the programs with 68-70% of participants identifying as female and 27-33% as a non-White, ethnic or racial minority. No statistical differences were observed between genders in employment status, financial debt, or post-graduation salary changes but more women entered the online graduate programs with a BS degree.

Men reported more frequently a large impact on job promotion. Job mobility and networking opportunities were ranked as having a large impact more frequently by Black or African American and Asian respondents compared to other races/ethnicities. The attrition rate was on average 21.9% with no significant differences between genders or races/ethnicities. The results of this survey will serve as the basis for discussion on equity in online graduate education. According to the US Department of Commerce, more than 1.2 million STEM positions have gone unfilled in 2018 because of a lack of qualified candidates. In spite of the current and projected demand for STEM workers, gender and ethnic differences in the STEM fields continue to persist.

Takeaway: Apply the capitalist system and its various components to higher education and how it influences admission, retention, and learning.

The disparity of employment by women and minorities in STEM disciplines is an ongoing topic of discussion and a significant effort has been made to narrow the employment gap. Women remain underrepresented in the STEM area and leadership positions are predominantly male occupied. The lack of women in STEM is a reflection and consequence of unbalanced science education resources during primary school years where men are more often portrayed as scientists and women as teachers. However, the current trends indicate that women do remain underrepresented in STEM educational programs and in employment (47.5% for all employed vs. 25.8% in STEM employed). Similarly, Hispanic (14.9% for all employed vs. 6.5% in STEM employed) and Black or African American (10.8% for all employed vs. 6.4% in STEM employed) employment in the STEM field has been consistently below the average of the total employment market. In order to understand the current discrepancy in STEM representation by women and ethnic minorities, David Martin points to the civil rights era and the discrepant forms of social and cultural capital available to white males compared to women and minorities. Educational systems such as the college environment need to be seen in the larger social class context that is represented by a capitalist system. Social and cultural capital is not evenly distributed between genders – men are favored in the broader society for careers in STEM positions in a social and cultural context throughout their primary school education. This social and cultural imprinting translates to discrepant behavior in college and a lack of capital for women that seek to enter STEM careers but instead first need to overcome social and cultural barriers, thus choosing careers in other professions that eliminate such barriers. During the session, attendees will form small groups and discuss their own capital and in which way it is used and/or converted.

Takeaway: Relate non-traditional learner motivations to specific needs and teaching approaches suitable to an online learning environment.

In addition to being underrepresented as a consequence of social norms and perceptions, women face a number of barriers in furthering their higher education endeavors. Related to social and cultural norms, women may face a role conflict to be the primary child caretaker at home while expected to suspend their own careers and thus forego career advancement, higher wages, and personal fulfillment that can be obtained through higher education. Family and spousal support is therefore important to foster equal access for many non-traditional female learners that balance a busy work life, child rearing, personal duties, and studying for their educational advancements. While gender differences have been revealed to affect performance, motivation, and communication behaviors in learning, persistent gender stereotypes also affect how women and men may perceive their chosen field of study. Attendees will reflect in small groups on their own perceptions of gender, gender norms and stereotypes, racial/ethnic stereotypes, and how this impacts the learning process and dynamics in a microenvironment (i.e. online course setting) and macroenvironment (i.e. society at large).

Online learning in higher education continues to evolve with many variations and blends of educational technology to support student learning from distance courses to hybrid learning environments. Institutions have invested time and effort to train faculty and staff to provide learners with an equally rewarding and instructive learning experience online by using various learning management systems and other technologies from a traditional classroom instruction. Furthermore, qualitative and quantitative outcome measures and alignment standards building on years of education research such as the Quality Matters rubric have provided guidance to implement successful online course structures. With growing internet accessibility worldwide, a new audience of often non-traditional learners can be reached that was previously not able to either obtain a university education or attain an advanced degree. Non-traditional and adult learners primarily choose to return to school online for advancement in their careers (74%), receiving a salary increase (45%), and receiving promotions (36%). Attendees will share in small groups what would/has motivated them to pursue returning to school to continue their education.

Takeaway: Explore and analyze the unique needs of minority students in an online learning environment.

Within the population of non-traditional learners, a majority participating in online courses and programs as evaluated by surveys are women that seek to obtain a degree or reenter the job market. However, enrollment in online undergraduate courses by Hispanic and Black or African-American students is lower compared to their white peers. This may in part be linked to socioeconomic status and whether a student received financial aid as online enrollment appears to be correlated to financial aid support by both traditional and non-traditional students. To date, little is known about the performance of minority students and the potential benefits of online courses specific to this population. Initial investigations indicate that, although mean grades have been observed to be significantly lower for minority students enrolled in online courses, the improvement in exam scores and correlated behavior in communication participation was comparable between minorities and their white peers. This points to the online environment providing for leverage to minority students in equalizing discrepant social and cultural capital. By the time students are able to enroll in a graduate program, the discrepancy of minority students in social and cultural capital may already have led them to forego several career opportunities due to a lack of job mobility, unconscious bias in hiring practices, or insufficient support in crucial career planning stages. Another indicator of unequally distributed and accessible capital in higher education are attrition rates that remain higher for women and minority students, especially in STEM concentrations, often linked to economic disadvantages and pressures but also to the academic environment and institution that does not allow them to continue their education.

Takeaway: Utilize the constructivist approach to instructional design of online course content and delivery.

Online education can provide a learner-centric environment by using a constructivist design strategy that incorporates construction of knowledge, authority, and voice. This gives learners a sense of responsibility and to develop their own authority of the subject matter. Attendees share in small groups their own strategies for learner-centric design strategies and how this may benefit various groups of learners in achieving learning outcomes.