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Approaching the millennium: the challenge for African Americans in engineering.

In 1971, scarcely one percent of the engineering graduates in the United States were African American, Hispanic, or American Indian, although we represented 18 percent of the college-age population. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, however, the nation's consciousness had been heightened regarding social justice and racial discrimination, including inequity in job opportunities. A number of leaders in the African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian communities, in the academic world, in government, and especially in the corporate sector recognized that engineering had an important role to play in these critical social issues. At that time, more than half of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 corporations had an engineering background. Almost two-thirds of all managers in those companies were engineers. Clearly, if people of color were going to achieve upward mobility in the corporate sector, we would have to gain greater access to careers in engineering. These considerations led to the formation of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), a collaboration among private sector corporations, to conduct research, to identify the specific impediments limiting access to careers in engineering for people of color, and to develop and implement programs to address those impediments.

Where Are We Today?

During the 20 years since NACME was established, real progress has been made. There were more than 5,000 graduates of color in engineering in 1993. That's an order-of-magnitude over the 1971 figure. No other discipline can claim that kind of growth. In the physical sciences, for example, there has actually been a decline.

While NACME cannot take responsibility for all of the growth in engineering, the existence of a centralized organization that collects and analyzes information and trends and that brings resources to bear at critical intervention points on a national level--an organization supported by the highest levels of the corporate community--has made a substantial difference in galvanizing support from all sectors.

The question is, where are we today in the quest for parity? In spite of unprecedented growth, only 7.9 percent of the engineering graduates this year were African-American, Hispanic, or American Indian, and we're now 28 percent of the college-age population. What can we do to accelerate our progress? The greatest short-term opportunity we have to increase participation in the engineering profession is to keep students in the pipeline who have already demonstrated the interest, motivation, commitment, and academic performance necessary to succeed.

Attrition Remains Unacceptably High

Unfortunately, nationally, we're not doing a very good job. Two-thirds of all students of color who enroll in engineering drop out before they get their engineering degrees. That's twice the attrition rate of their white peers. While we produced 40,000 engineers of color, over the past decade almost 80,000 students dropped out, and half of those left college altogether. This is a tremendous loss in human resources to the nation.

Why do we have this attrition problem? Why is it that university programs developed over the past ten years to combat it (although some have had positive impact) have been collectively ineffective nationally? Many are based on incorrect assumptions, and focus on "fixing" the student. The conventional wisdom is that typically students of color are inadequately prepared for the rigors of the engineering curriculum; they are less motivated than their peers; they've had little informal exposure to science and engineering; and their high school courses are, on average, substandard. There is also a pervasive belief that these students, especially African Americans, are less capable in mathematics and science. None of this is true. In fact, engineering has been enormously successful in attracting top-performing high school students of color--students who are typically in the top 15 percent of their class, who have taken chemistry, physics, and calculus and who have SAT scores that match their white peers.'

Cost of Higher Education Reduces Access

The number one reason why students of color drop out of engineering is that they lack the financial resources to continue. Compare the spiraling cost of higher education with the cost of health care which rose 117 percent during the 1980s. Over the same period, the cost of attending a private university increased an average of 146 percent, and the cost of attending a public institution grew 109 percent. Average income expanded only 73 percent. Higher education looms as an impending crisis at least equal to that in health care.

In addition to spiraling costs, which affect everyone, policy changes in the administration of financial aid exacerbate the problem for the poorest segment of the population, where students of color are disproportionately represented. In 1975, 80 percent of all financial aid available was in the form of scholarships or grants. Today loans are the dominant form of aid from the government and other sources combined. Since poor families are far less inclined than more affluent families to borrow, particularly for higher education, the net effect is reduced access for poor students.

A more insidious trend is that universities, burdened by their own financial difficulties, are using financial aid not as a means of increasing access for poor students, but as a tool to lure affluent students who might otherwise be inclined to attend another institution. This works as follows: Suppose a university that costs $20,000 per year has a $5,000 scholarship to award. The grant could go to a poor student, who would then need additional funds from some other source, or the grant could go to a student whose parents could pay the difference in cash. The latter strategy yields a higher net tuition revenue for the school. So a large fraction of scholarship aid is shifting toward more affluent students, again reducing access for the poor. This trend is already having a profound impact on national enrollment.

Effective Scholarship Programs Provide More than Financial Aid

Because of these factors, NACME's scholarship programs have remained a high priority for us. We offer the nation's largest private scholarship fund for African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian students in engineering. More than 5,000 engineers now in the work force have gone through engineering school with NACME scholarship support. And let me point out that an effective scholarship program provides a great deal more than simple financial aid. We provide a wide range of support to enable students to succeed in spite of the continuing inhospitable climate for students of color: low faculty expectations, inappropriate assumptions about their capabilities, lack of peer support, isolation from the mainstream of academic life and lack of mentors, stemming in part from the virtual absence of faculty members of color. NACME's Corporate Scholars Program (CSP), for example, includes mentors provided by corporate partners. These are industry personnel trained by NACME who can look over the shoulders of the professors and provide expert academic and career advice to the students. We provide students with summer internships and offer leadership and career development seminars on campus. The result is that these students don't drop out.

At the same time, we're gnawing away at the institutional obstacles, through diversity workshops focusing for the first time on faculty and administrators as well as students. The primary objective is to bring faculty and students together to explore issues of cross-cultural communication and increase faculty members' effectiveness in a culturally diverse environment.

Most Students of Color Don't Go Beyond Algebra I

We've come to realize, however, that we must also look at earlier stages of the educational pipeline in order to make a real difference in access to engineering. We lose too many students too early. Only five percent of students of color graduate from high school with the prerequisites for an engineering major.

We need an effort that goes beyond traditional education. For example, parents and students in our community must be properly informed. More than half of African-American students take no mathematics beyond Algebra I. That is, 55 percent of our students are channeled out of any possibility of a science or engineering career when they are 12 or 13 years old. Parents in our community have to be made aware of the importance of the decision that's made in the eighth grade. When students are given the choice of taking the "hard" or the "easy" math, they must opt for the former if they want a place in the technology driven economy of the future. We have to use every means of communication to get that message across. NACME's efforts include the electronic media, print ads, comic books, and videos, as well as the traditional educational information networks.

All Young People Have The Potential

A fundamental flaw in American education is the assumption that students are born with a specific, innate intellectual capability that is immutable. On day one, many educators believe, children either have what it takes to become an engineer or scientist or they do not. Education then becomes merely a process of sorting out who has it and who doesn't. From preschool through the university, education is designed to filter and screen out the less intelligent and to identify and select the most intelligent.

Psychologists Jim Stigler and Harold Stevenson in their book, The Learning Gap, compare the Asian and American approaches to education. The key to Asian students' high performance is the deep-seated philosophy that hard work rather than innate ability yields academic success. They say, "If you believe that achievement is caused mostly by innate ability, at some fundamental level you don't believe in education. You believe education is sorting kids, and that those in some categories can't learn." Every student who finishes high school in Japan--and 98 percent of their kids do--takes calculus and physics. In Columbia, South America, all students in high school take calculus and physics. There's no good reason why all of our students shouldn't.

African-American students are disproportionately harmed by the idea of genetic determinism. Only 12 percent of our students are placed in the high ability tracks as compared to 39 percent of the white and Asian students. Those in the low ability tracks get a watered-down curriculum, fewer resources and poor teachers, and after twelve years they wind up not being very intelligent--not because of genetics, but because they haven't had the opportunity to develop their analytical thinking skills.

What's Our Community's Responsibility?

It's easy to point out the inequities in our society, the culturally biased standardized exams, racism in the school systems that under-fund schools in our neighborhoods, etc., but we ourselves have to bear some responsibility for our failures. We have to move away from a victim-driven way of thinking. One rarely views victims as equals.

The most effective way to fight inequity is to do it from a position of strength. The African-American community must bring intellectual development and academic achievement to the forefront of our agenda for the 1990s and beyond. We must demand more from our schools. We must make education, books, study, learning, and the pursuit of excellence central to our family and community lifestyles. We, as African-American people, cannot assume our rightful place as citizens unless we participate more fully in the scientific work force, unless we participate more actively in the technological decisions of today that will irreversibly shape our tomorrow.

Does Engineering Remain a High Opportunity Field for People of Color?

One of the questions we often get at NACME is why are we continuing to encourage students of color to go into engineering? Isn't engineering a dying profession? We read about layoffs in the aerospace industry. Defense spending is declining rapidly and the defense industry is the largest employer of engineers. Today's engineering graduates are having a tough time finding a job. All of these observations are true. Engineering jobs are not as plentiful today as they were a few years ago, but that's not an appropriate comparison. In 1990, only eight percent of college graduates got their degrees in engineering, but those grads got 40 percent of the job offers. So in this economy, relative to other fields, engineering is still a good place to be. Moreover, corporations realize that if we're going to turn the economy around, technology must be the driving force. They know we will not have a healthy 21st century economy without maintaining the strength and integrity of the science and engineering work force, and we can't do that without greater participation by all segments of society.

African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians today make up 28 percent of the college-age population, 40 percent of the birth rate, and a majority in 53 of the nation's largest cities. The issue of participation in the scientific enterprise is not a problem just for people of color; it is a problem for all Americans.

George Campbell Jr. is president of NACME, Inc., a non-profit corporation dedicated to improving access to careers in science-based disciplines for African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians. NACME conducts research and public policy analysis, develops and operates precollege and university enrichment programs, publishes original educational materials and is America's largest privately funded source of scholarships for minority engineering students.
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Title Annotation:Engineering
Author:Campbell, George, Jr.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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