Investing in STEM education in the U.S. is an investment in innovation, opportunity, and our global competitiveness. The number of STEM occupations is predicted to grow by 8.9 percent by 2024, and according to ACT’s new report on STEM Education in the U.S., we are still a STEM-deficient nation.

According to ACT data, only 21 percent of students – a percentage that has barely grown over three years – are prepared for postsecondary STEM opportunities and low-income, first-generation, and minority students lag even further behind. The STEM benchmark of 26 is derived from the ACT math and science scores and represents the level of readiness students need to succeed in first-year college STEM courses such as calculus, biology, and physics.

To add to the concern of low overall STEM readiness, on average, just two percent of first-generation, low-income and minority students met the ACT STEM benchmark meaning they are sixteen times less likely to be ready for credit-bearing STEM coursework in college.

The report also highlights disparities between rural versus suburban student STEM performance with only 17 percent meeting the STEM benchmark versus 33 percent.

These data point to a clear need to improve STEM education for all students, and especially underserved students. When fewer than 50 percent of high-poverty schools offered any physics courses and just over 25 percent offered a course in computer science in 2015, focusing on access and opportunity is critical.

ACT’s policy recommendations are aimed at improving STEM education overall, but have particular relevance to improving STEM opportunities for underserved students and reducing opportunity gaps. Specifically, ensuring that state graduation requirements emphasize access to rigorous science and math courses for ALL students, as well as expanding access to high-quality math and science courses and real-world experiences, is an important first step.

Policy Recommendations:

• Ensure that state graduation requirements emphasize the importance of rigorous science and math courses for all students.

• Provide equitable access to both high-quality math and science courses and real-world work experiences for all students via dual enrollment programs; double the number of STEM-oriented public-private dual enrollment partnerships in order to provide needed—and equitable—access to STEM instruction, especially for rural and urban students who lack the access of their suburban peers.

What’s more, there are significant supplemental out-of-school and afterschool programs that can provide STEM resources to students. ACT’s STEM report mentions many of these, including The Idaho STEM Action Center’s work, the Full Option Science System, the SAM Academy, and more.

“The greatest advancements in our society from medicine to mechanics have come from the minds of those interested in or studied in the areas of STEM,” according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s report on STEM. We must support policies that ensure our most underserved populations have exposure and access to STEM courses. Making STEM equitable to all is an investment in our future.

You can learn more about ACT’s new report here.