We need to empower a new generation of technologists who want to work for the public good

Public Interest Technology is not a luxury for only some universities, Andreen Soley writes. Instead, we need to create a broad-based network of universities to grow a civic technology field that reflects student demographic trends.


The demographics of high school graduates are shifting fast. Over the next 10-15 years, Hispanic high school graduates are set to increase by 50% and Asians and Pacific Islanders by 30%, while African Americans and Whites decline by 6% and 17% respectively. For colleges, this means that their student bodies are increasingly non-white, first generation students, many of whom will also be over the age of 24 and working part-time.

For those who have long endeavored to make the technology sector more diverse, this marks an incredible period of growth and potential for change. But how can they ensure that those who want to use their technological skills in service of the common good find pathways to economic growth and social mobility? Universities are working on the answer.

At a summit New America hosted with the Ford and Hewlett Foundations this summer, university presidents and provosts met to talk about the role of universities in growing the field of public interest technology (PIT). Through their curricula, career advising, fellowships, and internships universities are uniquely poised to help students develop the relevant techno-social skills needed to work in PIT. Universities should graduate students with fluencies in technical fields paired with an understanding of an ethical, legal, and policy framework; by doing so, their graduates can assess and incorporate the societal implications of technology into their work.

Given student demographic shifts, any university field building work needs to understand which universities have attracted and graduated technologists of color. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which make up just 3% of all postsecondary institutions, awarded 17% of all Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) baccalaureate degrees earned by Black students between 2002 and 2012— which is actually a drop from the 24% they graduated in the ten years prior. So, while HBCUs are doing the lion’s share of diversifying STEM for African-Americans, their ability to produce STEM graduates has eroded, often as a result of a lack of funding and resources. Similarly, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) are key drivers in increasing the educational attainment for Hispanic students. Despite occupying less than 5% of the higher education space, HSIs enroll nearly 50% of all Hispanic undergraduates, and produced 40% of the Latinx STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2010. Even so, HSIs face many of the same resource challenges as HBCUs.

If PIT is a rallying cry for universities to shape the impact of emerging technologies on the world, we must acknowledge that the inequitable division of resources and labor will make that work difficult. To ensure that a consortium of PIT-dedicated institutions garners broad-based support from the full range of universities and colleges, we must work to:

  • Promote a baseline level of digital literacy or technical intuition for all undergraduate students, so they can navigate the technological choices they will increasingly have to make regardless of the industries they pursue as career.
  • Seek to align PIT aims and goals with accrediting body standards to ensure that new course content can be incorporated more easily to meet institutional priorities. Students will therefore not be penalized by attending institutions that are not able to be as flexible with course creation.
  • Support collaborative strategies. A well-resourced university can provide access to new courses or internship experiences for a less resourced partner, while the latter provides the former with access to community organizations and students who bring a different perspective to their work.
  • Create opportunities for universities and colleges to advocate for measures that will broaden the impact of PIT. They can support loan forgiveness and repayment, as well as need-based financial aid programs that allow for an expansion of the student pipeline for PIT.

Technological innovations are disruptive, often exasperating inequality, but herein lies an opportunity for PIT to serve as a corrective by empowering a new generation of technologists who want to work for the public good. Because technology is often designed to reflect the lived experience and education of the developer, a broader pool of technologists working in the public interest can create the solutions we desperately need for issues specific to diverse populations. In order to ensure that technology in the public interest takes root and grows, we need to listen more carefully to those who have been preparing students for the world that lies just around the corner, serving a public that is increasingly dissimilar to the students of the past.

If you want to contribute to the university conversation about public interest technology, please contact soley@newamerica.org to learn more about university partnership initiatives.