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Student Diversity at UAMS Lags Behind State Demographics

By Nancy Dockter 
Diversity Process Coordinator 
UAMS Center for Diversity Affairs

In 2004, the National Institutes of Health and the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce declared the shortage of minorities in health care a national crisis that must be addressed in order to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities. Yet, having a student body representative of the general population has remained an elusive goal for UAMS, where most non-white groups are under-represented (Table 1).

Over the last decade, blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, Alaskans and Native Americans, and Asians with the exception of Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Asian Indians, and Thais have comprised about 12 percent of the UAMS student body (Figure 1), although those groups together are about double that in the state population. 

“It’s a Pipeline Problem”

That is what UAMS recruiters will tell you, and the data bear that out. There is steep competition for the hearts and minds of qualified students (both minority and white) for recruitment into the health professions. In 2010, Arkansas’ colleges and universities awarded just over 10,000 bachelor’s degrees; 1,311 of those degrees were in STEM majors – the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

Though the pool of STEM graduates has grown modestly since 2006, from 1,186 to 1,311 in 2010, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees earned in a STEM major has shown a slight dip – from 13.3% to 13.0%.

The number of Arkansas graduates majoring in biology, biomedical science or the physical sciences – the majors most often leading to professional degree in the health sciences – is so small that it should perhaps be called a puddle rather than a pool: From 2006 to 2010, those degrees totaled 2,845, or 569 each year on average. That is not good for an institution like UAMS that admits students coming mainly from in-state schools. Keeping homegrown talent in state, rather than losing students to other institutions, is a persistent challenge.

Even more striking: In 2010-11, Arkansas graduates with degrees in chemistry or one of the biological sciences totaled 907; of those, 170 were underrepresented minorities (black, American Indian or Alaskan, Hispanic, or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander).

High-achieving minority students are opting for careers in fields other than the health professions. Nationally, law school enrollment for blacks grew 250% from the early 1970s to 2006, and business management, according to 2007 figures, is the most popular major among blacks (as well as whites), accounting for a quarter of all bachelor’s degrees earned by blacks that year.

“They want to acquire skills that will help them get a good job after graduation so that they can pay off their student loans and ensure that they will have a good shot at achieving higher incomes than their parents, most of whom entered their wage-earning years in a Jim Crow society,” is how a recent report in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education summed it up.  

The report also noted that while nationally blacks earn 9.6% of all bachelor’s degrees, they earn a much larger portion of degrees in certain fields – for example, more than 23% of the degrees in public administration and 18% of those earned in law, security and protective services.

For too many Arkansas students, poverty and low parental educational attainment take a toll – all along the education pipeline. But, even those who shine academically despite coming from a disadvantaged background may never consider a health career. A simple lack of information about career options, limited finances or self-doubt are too-oft a hindrance. In addition the demands of family and work force others to put educational plans on hold. These problems are more entrenched in communities of color, for whom the long history of racial discrimination still plays out, affecting education, employment opportunities, and social mobility.

Meeting the Challenge

Fully achieving student diversity at an academic health center is a complex, challenging undertaking. There is always room for improvement. The biggest factor is inarguably the pool of qualified applicants, and to address that problem, a wide array of outreach programs has existed for years at UAMS. To prepare students for careers in health, these programs start as early as kindergarten and extend through post-baccalaureate education.

But then there is the issue of successfully competing for those qualified minority applicants, both from Arkansas and other places. Prospective minority students want to know, “Are there people at UAMS like me?” “Will it be a welcoming, supportive atmosphere?” The catch-22 is that a critical mass of minority students, faculty, and administrators begets more diversity. Additionally, the campus climate for diversity is signaled not only by numbers, but other tangibles such as support services, events, policies, programs, curricula, and even lines of research that show that diversity is valued. Important too are attitudes and relations on campus among all who study and work there.

The good news is that there is much going on at UAMS these days which in time will increase diversity. The credit for that goes primarily to Chancellor Rahn. He came to UAMS in late 2009 with the determination that more thought, effort and resources would be devoted to diversity, because it greatly matters in any organization but particularly one in the business of health professions education and health care.

With Dr. Rahn’s leadership, much has changed and is changing. The Center for Diversity Affairs (CDA) now serves the entire campus rather than solely the College of Medicine. The position of assistant vice chancellor for diversity, held by Dr. Billy Thomas, has been elevated to vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion. The colleges’ and Graduate School’s five-year plans for minority recruitment and retention are reflective of the stepped-up commitment each has for increasing diversity. Dr. Rahn in early 2011 established the Chancellor’s Minority Recruitment and Retention Committee as an advisory body on matters affecting student and faculty diversity. That group has been researching best practices to recommend for further improvement.

Last fall, Drs. Rahn and Thomas unveiled five- and one-year goals for diversity and inclusion that touch on every facet of the UAMS mission. The CDA endeavors to serve as a hub, support and catalyst for efforts to make those goals reality. In order for it to be successful, collaboration across siloes and organizational boundaries is essential. Your ideas are always welcome at the CDA.