A Closer Look at Minorities in Engineering

New report looks at educational attainment of underrepresented minorities in engineering fields, finding progress but "a long way to go."
May 2, 2008

In confronting the "gathering storm" of declining competitiveness in the global marketplace, policy makers and business leaders often point to the importance of foreign students and international education in boosting both research and the American work force. A new report released on Thursday argues instead that the solution lies at home, "untapped," waiting for the nation to wake up to the "quiet crisis" of minority underrepresentation in engineering-related fields.

"We find ourselves at this moment in history with the number of engineering graduates at one of its lowest levels of the past 20 years, and yet a time when the demand for young people prepared to work in America's high-technology industries has never been higher," wrote John Brooks Slaughter, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, which sponsored the report through a grant from the Motorola Foundation.

The report, whose title, "Confronting the 'New' American Dilemma," refers to a landmark 1944 study on race relations by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, argues that the mismatch been the demands of science and engineering fields and the graduates produced by American colleges and universities must be addressed by boosting the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing those degrees.

While the percentage and number of such minorities (defined as African Americans, Latinos/as and American Indians/Alaska Natives) earning degrees in science, technology, mathematics and engineering -- or STEM -- fields has generally increased over the years, the report notes the daunting obstacles that confront policy makers and educators seeking to increase the diversity of graduate students, professors and scientists in private industry who have made it through the pipeline. According to NACME, only a fraction of underrepresented minorities graduate high school "eligible" to seriously pursue engineering at the college level, a reality the report dubs "the 4 percent problem."

In 2002, according to the report, 28,000 out of about 690,000 minority students who graduated from high school that year had taken enough required math and science courses to qualify them for a college program in engineering. And of that pool, only 17,000 enrolled in engineering programs as freshmen, compared with 107,000 first-year students at such institutions. "That same year," the report states, "4,136 Latinos, 2,982 African Americans, and 308 American Indians received baccalaureate degrees in engineering out of a total of 60,639 minority graduates" -- just over 12 percent combined out of the total minority graduation pool, including Asian Americans and other groups.

The report itself is part of a broader campaign by the engineering association to promote wide-ranging policy reforms in education, from K-12 to graduate school. The organization envisions a broad-based partnership between government, business and education leaders to expand access, boost funding and support diversity programs for underrepresented minorities.

Among the report's "calls to action," for example, are strengthening STEM education early on in school and improving guidance counselors' "knowledge of STEM careers and college programs and have them send the message to students that STEM careers pay in terms of salary, prestige, and challenge." It also targets financial aid and affirmative action programs, and calls for "policies to totally transform the education system to emphasize active, hands-on, project-based learning rather than lecture and rote memorization."

That might be a reference to the educational systems of some Asian countries that send students to American colleges and graduate programs in STEM fields. At a panel announcing the report's release on Capitol Hill on Thursday, several participants seemed to pit the success of underrepresented minorities against that of foreign students studying at American colleges, with the implicit suggestion that lawmakers should focus instead on the latent potential of African American, Latino and Native American students. "I think it's a smokescreen," said Lisa M. Frehill, the executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, which conducted the research for the report, referring to the willingness of colleges to accept foreign students as compared to the educational attainment of underrepresented minorities.

Most of the data come from various government agencies, including the Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics. To take a 2005 snapshot illustrating the dilemmas confronting educators, the report provides the exact number of minority graduates at each degree level. To African-American females, there were 1,074 engineering bachelor's degrees awarded that year, compared with 2,111 for males. Females were awarded 282 master's degrees in engineering compared to 592 for males, while 26 black females earned Ph.D.s in engineering, compared with 74 black males.

For Latinos, the numbers are similar: 1,155 bachelor's degrees awarded to women and 3,459 to men; 315 master's degrees to women and 837 to men; at the doctoral level, 28 women earned their degrees and 70 men. The numbers for American Indians and Alaska Natives remain in the single digits at the Ph.D. level, with degrees awarded to eight males and a single female. Those numbers are not available in the report for 2006 because of a new policy that withholds some data on minority doctorates for privacy reasons.

Some other statistics uncovered in the report:

  • The number of engineering degrees as a proportion of all bachelor's degrees awarded declined from 1995 to 2005 for all ethnic groups except for American Indians and Alaska Natives. For African Americans, that proportion declined to 2.5 percent from 3.3 percent of all degrees, while for Latinos it declined to 4.2 percent -- about the level for non-Hispanic whites -- from 5.5 percent in 1995.
  • At the associate degree level, the percentage of engineering degrees earned by African Americans rose to over 10 percent from about 4 percent between 1991 and 2005. That percentage increased from 6 percent to 9 percent over the same period at the bachelor's degree level.
  • The top institutions awarding engineering bachelor's degrees to African Americans are all historically black universities: North Carolina A&T State University, Tennessee State University, Prairie View A&M University, Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.
  • The gap between white and black educational attainment has narrowed over the years, "but not disappeared," according to the report. In 2004, 17.6 percent of African Americans and 30.6 percent of non-Hispanic whites held a bachelor's degree or higher.

So far, the report is not available online, but supplementary materials have been posted at the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology's Web site.

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