Support Them and They Will Come

The nation needs more minority engineers, and we know what it takes to recruit and educate them.

On May 6, 1973, the National Academy of Engineering convened an historic conference in Washington, D.C., to address a national issue of crisis proportions. The Symposium on Increasing Minority Participation in Engineering attracted prominent leaders from all sectors of the R&D enterprise. Former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in his opening address to the group underscored the severity of the problem, “Of 1.1 million engineers in 1971, 98 percent were white males.” African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, and American Indians made up scarcely one percent. Other minorities and women made up the remaining one percent.

Symposium deliberations led to the creation of National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), Inc. Its mission was to lead a national initiative aimed at increasing minority participation in engineering. Corporate, government, academic, and civil rights leaders were eager to lend their enthusiastic support. In the ensuing quarter century, NACME invested more than $100 million in its mission, spawned more than 40 independent precollege programs, pioneered and funded the development of minority engineering outreach and support functions at universities across the country, and inspired major policy initiatives in both the public and private sectors. Building the largest private scholarship fund for minority students pursuing engineering degrees, NACME supported 10 percent of all minority engineering graduates from 1980 to the present.

By some measures, progress has been no less than astounding. The annual number of minority B.S. graduates in engineering grew by an order of magnitude, from several hundred at the beginning of the 1970s to 6,446 in 1998. By other measures, though, we have fallen far short of the mark. Underrepresented minorities today make up about a quarter of the nation’s total work force, 30 percent of the college-age population, and a third of the birth rate, but less than 6 percent of employed engineers, only 3 percent of the doctorates awarded annually, and just 10 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned in engineering. Even more disturbing, in the face of rapidly growing demand for engineers over the past several years, freshman enrollment of minorities has been declining precipitously. Of particular concern is the devastating 17 percent drop in freshman enrollment of African Americans from 1992 to 1997. Advanced degree programs also have declining minority enrollments. First-year graduate enrollment in engineering dropped a staggering 21.8 percent for African Americans and 19.3 percent for Latinos in a single year, between 1996 and 1997. In short, not only has progress come to an abrupt end, but the gains achieved over the past 25 years are in jeopardy.

Why we failed

One reason why the progress has been slower than hoped is that financial resources never met expectations. After the 1973 symposium, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commissioned the Task Force on Minority Participation in Engineering to develop a plan and budget for achieving parity (representation equal to the percentage of minorities in the population cohort) in engineering enrollment by 1987. The task force called for a minimum of $36.1 million (1987 dollars) a year, but actual funding came to about 40 percent of that. And as it happened, minorities achieved about 40 percent of parity in freshman enrollment.

Leaping forward to the present, minority freshman enrollment in the 1997-98 academic year had reached 52 percent of parity. Again the disappointing statistics and receding milestones should not come as a surprise. In recent years, corporate support for education, especially higher education, has declined. Commitments to minority engineering programs have dwindled. Newer companies entering the Fortune 500 list have not yet embraced the issue of minority underrepresentation. Indeed, although individual entrepreneurs in the thriving computer and information technology industry have become generous contributors to charity, the new advanced technology corporate section has not yet taken on the mantle of philanthropy or the commitment to equity that were both deeply ingrained in the culture of the older U.S. companies they displaced.

The failure to attract freshman engineering majors is compounded by the fact that only 36 percent of these freshman eventually receive engineering degrees, and a disproportionately small percentage of these go on to earn doctorates. This might have been anticipated. Along with the influx of significant numbers of minority students came the full range of issues that plague disenfranchised groups: enormous financial need that has never been adequately met; poor K-12 schools; a hostile engineering school environment; ethnic isolation and consequent lack of peer alliances; social and cultural segregation; prejudices that run the gamut from overt to subtle to subconscious; and deficient relationships with faculty members, resulting in the absence of good academic mentors. These factors drove minority attrition to twice the nonminority rate.

It should be obvious that the fastest and most economical way to increase the number of minority engineers is to make it possible for a higher percentage of those freshman engineering students to earn their degrees. And that’s exactly what we have begun to do. Over the past seven years, NACME developed a major program to identify new talent and expand the pipeline, while providing a support infrastructure that ensures the success of selected students. In the Engineering Vanguard Program, we select inner-city high-school students–many with nonstandard academic backgrounds–using a nontraditional, rigorous assessment process developed at NACME. Through a series of performance-based evaluations, we examine a set of student attributes that are highly correlated with success in engineering, including creativity, problem-solving skill, motivation, and commitment.

Because the inner-city high schools targeted by the program, on average, have deficient mathematics and science curricula, few certified teachers, and poor resources, NACME requires selected students to complete an intense academic preparation program, after which they receive scholarships to engineering college. Although many of these students do not meet standard admissions criteria for the institutions they attend, they have done exceedingly well. Students with combined SAT scores 600 points below the average of their peers are graduating with honors from top-tier engineering schools. Attrition has been virtually nonexistent (about 2 percent over the past six years). Given the profile of de facto segregated high schools in predominantly minority communities (and the vast majority of minority students attend such schools), Vanguard-like academic preparation will be essential if we’re going to significantly increase enrollment and, at the same time, ensure high retention rates in engineering.

Using the model, we at NACME believe that it is possible to implement a program that, by raising the retention rate to 80 percent, could within six years result in minority parity in engineering B.S. degrees. That is, we could raise the number of minority graduates from its current annual level of 6,500 to 24,000. Based on our extensive experience with supporting minority engineering students and with the Vanguard program, we estimate that the cost of this effort will be $370 million. That’s a big number–just over one percent of the U.S. Department of Education budget and more than 10 percent of the National Science Foundation budget. However, a simple cost-benefit analysis suggests that it’s a very small price for our society to pay. The investment would add almost 50,000 new engineering students to the nation’s total engineering enrollment and produce about 17,500 new engineering graduates annually, serving a critical and growing work force need. This would reduce, though certainly not eliminate, our reliance on immigrants trained as engineers.

Crudely benchmarking the $367.5 million cost, it’s equivalent to the budget of a typical, moderate-sized polytechnic university with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 10,000. Many universities have budgets that exceed a billion dollars, and there are none that produce 17,000 graduates annually. The cost, too, is modest when contrasted with the cost of not solving the underrepresentation problem. For example, Joint Ventures, a Silicon Valley research group, estimates that the work force shortage incrementally costs Silicon Valley high-technology companies between $3 billion and $4 billion dollars annually because of side effects such as productivity losses, higher turnover rates, and premium salaries. At the same time, minorities, who make up almost half of California’s college-age population, constitute less than 8 percent of the professional employees in Silicon Valley companies. Adding the social costs of an undereducated, underutilized talent pool to the costs associated with the labor shortage, it’s clear that investment in producing more engineers from underrepresented populations would pay enormous dividends.

Given the role of engineering and technological innovation in today’s economy and given the demographic fact that “minorities” will soon make up a majority of the U.S. population, the urgency today is arguably even greater than it was in 1973. The barriers are higher. The challenges are more exacting. The threats are more ominous. At the same time, we have a considerably more powerful knowledge base. We know that engineering is the most effective path to upward mobility, with multigenerational implications. We know what it takes to solve the problem. We have a stronger infrastructure of support for minority students. We know that the necessary investment yields an enormous return. We know, too, that if we fail to make the investment, there will be a huge price to pay in dollars and in lost human capital. The U.S. economy will not operate at its full potential. Our technological competitiveness will be challenged. Income gaps among ethnic groups will continue to widen.

We should also remember that this is not simply about social justice for minorities. The United States needs engineers. Many other nations are increasing their supply of engineers at a faster rate. In recent years, the United States has been able to meet the demand for technically trained workers only by allowing more immigration. That strategy may no longer be tenable in a world where the demand for engineers is growing in many countries. Besides, it’s not necessary.

In the coming fall, 600,000 minority students will be entering their senior year in high school in the United States. We need to enroll only 5 percent of them in engineering in order to achieve the goal of enrollment parity. If we invest appropriately in academic programs and the necessary support infrastructure, we can achieve graduation parity as well. If we grasp just how important it is for us to accomplish this task, if we develop the collective will to do it, we can do it. Enthusiasm and rhetoric, however, cannot solve the problem as long as the effort to deliver a solution remains substantially underfunded. Borrowing from the vernacular, we’ve been there and done that.

Cite this Article

Jr., George Campbell. “Support Them and They Will Come.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 2 (Winter 2000).

Vol. XVI, No. 2, Winter 2000