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Promoting Economic Security for Low-Income Women Through STEM Education at Community Colleges

By Caroline Dubozinskis

An upcoming report from IWPR, Opportunities for Low-Income Women and Student Parents in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math at Community Colleges, looks at women’s current standing within these fields, dubbed STEM by the federal government and highlighted by the current Administration as a key to global competitiveness.

According to IWPR’s report, careers in STEM fields can be tools of advancement for low-income women, as long as the correct mechanisms are in place to support them, especially at the community college level. Unfortunately, the number of women pursuing associate’s degrees and certificates in STEM education is declining, while job opportunities increase.

The upcoming IWPR report by researcher and consultant Cindy Costello (to be released this spring) brings attention to these recent declines; points to the low number of women working in STEM careers, particularly among communities of color; and recommends policies and practices that could encourage more low-income women to pursue and complete STEM education at community colleges.

While STEM fields tend to have much higher salaries than non-STEM positions, many higher paying jobs do not require more than an associate’s degree obtainable through a community college education, including jobs as engineering technicians, computer support specialists, or lab assistants. The report compares women’s earnings in jobs in both STEM and non-STEM fields requiring associate’s degrees, finding substantially lower pay for non-STEM jobs which tend to be dominated by women.

Currently, women tend to enter community college for fields leading to lower-paying jobs such as administrative assistants, health aides, and child care workers. Costello points out that it is important and very possible to move the tide, not only by encouraging women and girls to enter these fields, but also by putting supports in place to help low-income women complete degrees in STEM fields.

In the coming years, the number of jobs in the STEM field is expected to increase—while other fields decline. Between 2008 and 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that STEM occupations will grow by 17.0 percent, while non-STEM occupations will see only 9.8 percent growth.

Low-income students and student parents tend to pursue education at community colleges rather than four-year institutions for financial and geographic reasons.  Previous IWPR research, published in the report, Improving Child Care Access to Promote Postsecondary Success Among Low-Income Parents (released in March 2011), found that nearly a quarter of postsecondary students in the United States are parents and, of these, 57 percent are low-income. Overall, four in ten postsecondary students are considered low-income.

Completing their education and obtaining degrees that could lead to STEM careers can be an enormous struggle for these students because of gaps in education, financial pressure, and added work and family obligations.

“For low-income women and student parents, locating financial support and accessible, affordable child care can make the difference between staying on track and in school—or stepping away from college to work more hours in order to make ends meet,” writes Costello in the upcoming STEM report.

The broad range of recommendations laid out in the upcoming IWPR report on STEM address funding for programs, recruitment strategies for girls and women to enter STEM education programs, and supports for low-income students at community colleges to help them complete their degrees. With these recommendations in place, low-income women would have more opportunities to advance in the STEM fields—contributing not only to the country’s economy, but also to its level of innovation.

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