One of the toughest issues facing America today is how to sustain our nation’s prosperity within a rapidly changing global economy. There’s no simple solution to the problem, but we do know one critical element: investing in education.
Among our many educational investments, we must remain focused on tapping the potential of our expanding, increasingly diverse workforce. To this end, we must ensure diversity within our higher-education institutions, as it is the pipeline to a workforce that will allow us to meet both vital economic and educational aims.
Our nation’s colleges and universities have the responsibility of forging diverse learning environments, and helping tomorrow’s workers become critical thinkers, effective communicators, ethical decision-makers and effective team members (See “The Economic Imperative of Diversity”). The diversity imperative has significant implications for our nation in nearly every professional field and corresponding academic discipline. But in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), specifically as it relates to the health care professions, data clearly underscores diversity’s importance.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. are health care related. In 2008 health care provided 14.3 million jobs for wage and salary workers. Between 2008 and 2018 it is predicted that the health care field will generate 3.2 million new wage and salary jobs, more than any other industry. Yet STEM fields look little like the America of the 21st century, with much smaller percentages of female, African-American, Native American, Latino and low-income students than those pursuing other undergraduate disciplines.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of American Universities have argued that “we must increase participation of minorities and women in STEM fields…[or] the nation’s economic strength, leadership in innovation, and security may be expected to decline appreciably.” Similarly, other leading health-related organizations, such as the Association of American Medical Colleges, American Medical Association and American Dental Education Association, have recognized the importance of developing and sustaining a health care workforce that reflects the broad diversity of our nation.
To ensure that we are making the right kinds of investments with the right kind of support, one might ask the underlying question: Why diversity? After all, aren’t we talking about math and science? How vital is a diverse group of students (or a workforce) to success in conducting research, calculating coefficients and documenting experimental data?
The simple answer is: It’s vitally important.
The very benefits associated with a diverse group of students engaged in learning in general have even greater significance in science- and math-related fields. The fact that there may be specific answers to questions involving science, math or medicine doesn’t eliminate the need–frequently central in key advancements around science–to ensure that the right questions are being asked, and that the many pathways toward resolution are being fully explored. Advancements in scientific thought (and the progress that it yields) depend in substantial part on the ability of teams to engage collaboratively, to respond critically and to act productively.
And as the field of medicine clearly demonstrates, diversity benefits are not merely associated with paths of educational discovery, but are also highly relevant to the positive health care outcomes, and overall improvements in public health. Specifically, greater diversity in the health care profession can yield greater access and improved quality of patient-practitioner communications and care for underserved populations, as well as enhanced research agendas focusing on key issues and the effect on underserved communities.
With a focus on diversity–not for the sake of diversity itself, but to achieve the educational, economic and other societal benefits associated with diversity–we can achieve significant advances in health care service delivery, and promote expanded research agendas and scientific advancements. We can help bring about transformational change for the betterment of our nation and our world.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world. Arthur L. “Art” Coleman is a managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel LLC, and member of the IHEP Board of Directors.