Advancing Black Doctors in Engineering



As a result of the now-infamous Brown vs. Board of Education case, the percentage of black students attaining University degrees has increased significantly since the 1950's.  According to the 2010 US census, however, 82% of black Americans aged 25 or older have a high school diploma, while 18% have earned a bachelor's degree, and only 3.5% have earned an advanced degree (ref.5). Unfortunately, of this small number, the percentage of those that seek a graduate degree in engineering or science are nearly nonexistent. 

This problem is quite disparaging, and unacceptable, considering that black Americans make up more than 13% of the U.S. population (ref.5).  The lack of representation of highly educated blacks in the Engineering community leads to an overall misrepresentation of the role of blacks in this country.   Increasing the number of qualified blacks with advanced engineering training is therefore crucial to absolve this disparity.


Currently there is a large deficit in the number of black students pursuing degrees in engineering beyond the bachelor's. The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) annually publishes a profile that includes data taken from 342 U.S. and 11 Canadian engineering colleges. Figure 1 below was taken from this work and clearly illustrates that among the engineering PhDs conferred in 2012, only a dismal amount (4.1%) of those students were black

Figure :  Graph demonstrating the PhD degrees awarded in engineering programs across the US and Canada.


This dearth of qualified black doctorate engineers leaves black communities highly underrepresented and underserved on a global scale.  It is not that the employment opportunities for this group do not exist; rather the percentages of black engineering doctoral students are so small that when compared to the rest of the world they are nonexistent.

The problem is not only due to lack of retention, but rather the alarmingly low number of black students enrolling in graduate engineering programs.  The 2013 University of California accountability report lists the percentages of students enrolled in graduate programs in Physical Sciences/Engineering by Ethnicity, and is shown below in Figure 2.  From this data it is quite apparent that the number of black graduate students enrolling in engineering graduate programs is significantly lower than those of other races (except for American Indians).

Figure : 2012 UC graduate enrollments in Physical Sciences and Engineering by race/ethnicity.


We believe that part of the reason for this lack of continuance through higher education is a deficit of mentorship and knowledge of resources.  It is the personal experience of the CABE board members that many black engineering graduates, do not pursue a graduate degree in engineering because they believe that the student loans from college are burdensome enough without compounding more debt by returning to graduate school. The average cumulative debt (undergraduate and graduate) of those who earned doctorates in 2009 was $41,018 for blacks and $22,518 for whites. In addition, 27.1% of the black graduates had debt of $70,001 or more, while only 10.5% of whites had the same amount of debt (ref.4).  Many black students are simply unaware that most universities in the United States pay engineering students a stipend to attend a doctoral program, and that the repayment of their student loans is deferred while they are still in school.  Aside from that, there are several organizations, both private and federal that award fellowships to promising black engineering students to finish a higher degree. Our intent is to develop programs to highlight these opportunities and channel students to extended resources.

Many studies have also shown that though a small number black engineering students are enrolling in doctoral programs, the number of these students who actually remain to finish their degree is incredibly small.  The retention of black engineering students is much lower than for their white or Asian counterparts.  Many universities do not have the necessary environment to address the needs of this minority student, eventually leading them to leave their respective PhD programs. Take for example Figure 3, which shows the results of a survey taken by students across the entire UC system in response to the statement, "students of my race/ethnicity are respected on this campus."  Of all of the races/ethnicities, black students make up the large majority of people who disagreed with this statement. It should be noted that Riverside had the most agreement from black students, making it the most comfortable UC campus for black students. This data is strong evidence that the UC system is in desperate need of a change in the racial climate on each of its campuses.  Here, we propose to implement a program that is directed toward improving the recruitment, retention, and success of black students in graduate engineering programs.

Figure : UC-wide response to "Students of my race/ethnicity are respected on this campus" in 2012.


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