Survival Course

Higher Reach Cover Story

African-American males represent a sliver of enrollment. More could succeed in engineering if schools understood what it takes to beat the odds.

“You’ve already overcome challenges to a certain degree,” Willie Rockward reminds freshmen at all-male Morehouse College, alma mater of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other African-American leaders. While too many of their peers are “in jail, in a morgue, or on the way” to one or the other fate, these young men, on average, have earned 3.2 high school GPAs. But steeper challenges await them in the Physics and Dual-degree Engineering Department that Rockward chairs, including two preliminary semesters of “tough math.” And before students enter Morehouse’s 3-plus-2 partnership with one of 14 engineering schools, including Georgia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, they’ll take three semesters of physics.

Such back-to-basics rigor is one school’s answer to a longstanding, perplexing question in engineering education: Why are there still so few African-American men? While black males account for 5 percent of the college population, they represent just 4 percent of undergraduate engineering enrollment, 3.3 percent of graduates, and 2.7 percent of master’s recipients. A tiny fraction reaches the professional pinnacle. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, African-Americans represent just 1 percent of National Academy of Engineering members.

For Morehouse freshmen and African-American males across the country, reaching college is itself an achievement. Just 52 percent of young black men graduate from high school in four years, less than a fourth enroll in college, and their incarceration rate is seven times that of whites. “We’re losing young black males throughout the educational pipeline,” says James Moore, Distinguished Professor of Urban Education at Ohio State University. Once on campus, many will struggle financially and academically. About 45 percent of Morehouse students and two thirds of black men overall won’t finish in six years. Some bright students who might gain acceptance to elite schools settle instead for less competitive colleges.

Those who pursue engineering face a particularly grueling and lonely slog. They often arrive with little exposure to the engineering profession or understanding of what it requires. Inadequate high school preparation requires them to play catch-up with classmates who took calculus or Advanced Placement physics and chemistry. That stretches time to graduation and adds costs. At majority-white institutions, black engineering students find few faculty members and potential mentors who look like them.

Preparation Gap

The paucity of African Americans in STEM fields has long concerned educators and policymakers. Many decry this waste of a talent pool that could expand the middle class and increase U.S. competitiveness. Less often discussed are the academic, social, and cultural hurdles encountered by African-American men, who are outnumbered and outperformed by black women on campuses across the country. Women account for more than 60 percent of black college students and graduate at a rate about 10 percentage points higher than men. In science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields nationwide, the achievement gap favors men, yet among African Americans, the reverse is true. Black women earned more than half of all science and engineering degrees earned by African Americans — surpassing their male counterparts, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation report. One study found that black women show more interest in math and science than men. However, engineering educators are finding ways to correct this chronic achievement gap. “We know what to do,” says Bevlee Watford, director of the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech. “Getting everyone – all colleges of engineering – to buy into this and support the activities is the difficulty.”

Researchers frequently cite poor high school preparation – in both content and study skills – as a major barrier to mastering the math and science that serve as a gateway to engineering. “That’s the big challenge,” says Reginald Perry, an associate dean and professor of computer and electrical engineering at the joint Florida A&M-Florida State University engineering college. William Tomlinson recalls his entry into engineering at North Carolina A&T State University. “It took a lot of work to get to a level where I could just compete,” he says. “The hardest part was my lack of background in the core engineering thought process in general.”

Lack of high school calculus or AP science courses sets students back but needn’t disqualify them, as schools that recognize and work to correct the problem have shown. “What we’ve found is that students who are able to receive that information [about their poor preparation] without internalizing ‘permanent failure’ have been able to recover from that feedback,” observes Terrell Strayhorn, an associate professor of higher education at Ohio State who directs the Center for Inclusion, Diversity, and Academic Success.

Where Morehouse provides extra math and a third semester of physics, Florida A&M-FSU and a number of other programs offer a rigorous pre-engineering summer bridge program. “That’s a milestone for them,” Perry says. It’s followed by a series of introductory courses and math. “If someone gets through, the rate of success is very high,” he notes.

New Jersey’s Educational Opportunity Program cushions college entrance for young men like Christopher Sam, who will graduate soon from the New Jersey Institute of Technology with a 2.7 average and a job with Cisco Systems. In high school, he hadn’t gone beyond Algebra II and trigonometry, and his grades “weren’t the best.” He also had attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. EOP accepts disadvantaged students with comparatively low scores and provides added instruction and guidance. At NJIT, the focus is on acquainting students with what engineering is all about and then preparing them to take Calculus 1-3. The program boasts a five-year graduation rate of 69 percent. It has ended up taking Sam seven years.

“Is engineering your passion?” If the answer to that is yes, an engineering student can overcome gaps in preparation, says Hampton University’s engineering and technology dean, Eric Sheppard. Some students will need two semesters of pre-calculus, he notes. “If they’re really truly excited, we’re here to help them.”

Noral Walker got a rude shock when he started at California State University, Northridge and failed the math placement test for calculus. He doesn’t blame his high school, where he had done well with little effort – “the only handicap was my arrogance” – but he took it as a wake-up call. He has since become “paranoid” about time and planning. He reads a couple of textbook chapters ahead and tries to anticipate what will appear on tests. His motto: “Surprise me on my birthday but not during exams.”

Last Tapped

A high attrition rate among African Americans in STEM feeds low expectations among faculty and advisers. Too often, says Ohio State’s Moore, “people don’t look at African-American males as individuals. They see them as a group.” Strayhorn tells of an adviser who failed to put through a form required to process a major, doubting the student’s staying power. At white-majority institutions, students spoke to researchers of being the last to be tapped for team projects and of instructors who couldn’t fathom backgrounds different from the white-American norm. One student was assigned to develop a software program to research his family tree. His instructor had trouble accepting the result: a program that incorporated his single mother and her unmarried partner’s family.

Stereotypes persist, with some male students given the impression they’re seen as menacing, violent, or just not equal to white peers. “I’m the only black student in most of my classes,” says Robert Greenfield, a computer science and industrial operations engineering student at the University of Michigan. In team assignments, “your work is triple-checked more often than normal,” he says. “You want to take on the hardest part of the work just to prove you can do it well.” When he has volunteered for such tasks, he’s been asked, “Are you sure?”

“I felt like I had to fight stereotypes,” adds Jerome Mason, a mechanical engineering junior at Clemson University, describing his “crisis” sophomore year, when courses got harder. “I was battling that on top of school. I couldn’t be average. I had to bring a lot more to the table, and it made me shy away from working in groups.”

Some African-American men fight back with what Moore, of Ohio State, and his colleagues have dubbed the “prove-them-wrong syndrome.” Christopher Berry, now a graduate student in automotive engineering at Clemson, adopted this attitude as an undergrad at Albany State University in Georgia. “My adviser told me I would never be in engineering because of my SAT scores and the amount of coursework I was taking [12 hours]. That was a major defining moment,” recalls Berry. “[I thought] you either accept this definition of success or you create your own. To be defeated by his words was something I was able to steer around.”

Community Counts

At Morehouse and other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), African-American men find what researchers say is a safe “affirming” place where STEM classes are small and faculty contribute to a family atmosphere. A sense of community and belonging “is important to, and predictive of, engagement,” says Strayhorn. “It’s an environment that looks like you. It’s more inviting,” explains Corey Baker, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering who began his college career at historically black Alabama State University. HBCUs accept that they have what Norman Fortenberry, ASEE’s executive director, says is a “heavier lift” than competitive majority-white institutions. Whereas the job of MIT, his alma mater, is the Hippocratic “do no harm,” he says, HBCUs typically draw from an in-state, riskier population and try to make up for whatever knowledge or skills a student lacks. “We spend more time working with them out of phase,” says Hampton’s Sheppard. “We try very hard to let them know they’re still on track. It’s not easy.”

Although the number of African-American males enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering has increased slightly over the past several years, their share of engineering undergraduate enrollment and graduates has declined by half a percent.

Higher Reach Databyte

ASEE  data compiled by Brian L. Yoder

Black men’s experience at majority-white institutions is different. In a study of 50 minority male students in STEM, Strayhorn and colleagues found that these students tend to “feel alone and invisible,” and “lack same-race peers and faculty members.” The absence of same-race peers “sends messages about who ‘belongs’ in his major,” they wrote in a 2013 ASEE conference paper. “With few or no same-race contemporaries or upperclassmen mentors to rely on for support, and a related sense of alienation, he sees the climate in his major as unwelcoming.”

Michael Maness, now pursuing a Ph.D. in civil engineering at the University of Maryland, can relate to this. “I always wondered if professors knew my name because I was the only black guy in the class,” he says. Preston Conley says he has “always felt alone” since taking honors science classes at a mostly white suburban high school in Ohio, where he endured what he says amounted to bullying. Through Ohio State and now at Columbia, where he’s pursuing a master’s in electrical engineering, he frequently has wondered, “Why am I the only one here?”

In one sense Conley was lucky: Several generations of his family had gone to college. If other African-American boys grew up thinking the NBA or NFL were their only route to success, Conley had a father who assured him, “Nerds run the world,” and who asked rhetorically, “Does Bill Gates look like he can dunk a ball?” With his parents’ backing, Conley took advanced classes at a community college, landing at Ohio State with Calculus I and II already under his belt.

For Corey Baker, family support worked the other way around: He helped his mother financially from internship earnings. When he received his bachelor’s degree and contemplated graduate school, family members wondered why, if he could earn a starting salary of $60,000, he didn’t take a job. Noral Walker, a first-generation college student, says his family had a hard time accepting what engineering demanded of him at Cal State. The oldest of eight, he was expected not only to be a “third parent” to his siblings but also to join his family at church. His mother once turned off their home’s electricity when Walker chose to stay and study instead of attending services. All told, reflects Walker, his career choice “has really created a divide in the way I relate to my family.”

Group Dynamics

Students seeking a semblance of family and community at majority-white institutions often turn to formal or informal African-American groupings such as fraternities or campus chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers. Those who ascend to leadership can gain, in turn, “a unique brand of access,” as Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania found in a study of African-American high achievers published in 2008. “Specifically, presidents, deans of students, and other administrators would often invite the high achievers to serve on major university committees to represent the needs and perspectives of racial/ethnic minority students,” writes Harper, executive director of Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

Robert Greenfield vaulted to attention as a result of his prominent role in a protest launched by Michigan’s Black Student Union that has come to be known by the hashtag #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan). Among the group’s demands is an increase in black representation “equal to 10 percent” and emergency scholarships for African-American students. “I can email the provost and the vice president,” he says. “It’s an amazing privilege. I can help myself and help the community.”

Many students experience an academic crisis of some kind, but for African-American men, financial difficulties and a sense of isolation can compound discouragement and end their pursuit of an engineering degree. In such times, a mentor can make a huge difference. “One thing that got me over the hump was talking to Dr. Howell,” says Christopher Sam, referring to the director of the Equal Opportunity Program at NJIT. “The mentor doesn’t have to look like you; he just has to care about you,” Morehouse’s Rockward tells students, encouraging them to be “pro-active” in identifying a mentor.

Someone on Your Side

“I had a lot of people in my corner,” says William Tomlinson, a Ph.D. student in computer engineering at Northeastern University, recalling periods when his work ethic flagged or he became complacent. Growing up, he encountered “not a lot of positive figures in general.” Now, at each stage of his academic or work life, he makes finding and keeping mentors a priority. “You have to hold on to individuals who show an interest in your success.” An upperclassman at the University of Central Florida helped Andrew April adjust following his transfer from a community college. The older man studied with him and offered advice. “It could be smaller things like ‘Hey, that’s not a good idea,’ or ‘I had problems with that class.’”

Corey Baker had mentors throughout Alabama State, including math Ph.D. candidates who tried to goad him into following in their footsteps by pointing out how few blacks were in the field. “They knew how to push my buttons,” recalls Baker, now a doctoral candidate himself at the University of Florida. In turn, he became one of Alabama State’s few undergraduate tutors. He encountered trouble with Calculus III after transferring to San Jose State and then faced what was known as the hardest course in computer science. His D-plus didn’t impress a manager at HP when Baker went to interview for an internship. Then another manager intervened: “Hire him – he’s good.” He knew of the course and the professor’s reputation for rigor.

If jobs and internships offer experience and contacts to many students, they represent survival for African-Americans like Lumumba Harnett, an electrical engineering senior at Hampton. “I lost a lot of sleep” early on in college, working nights and weekends at a sports-equipment store, he recalls. Pressure eased when a valued mentor, associate professor of electrical engineering Otsebele Nare, took him on as a research assistant. Harnett discovered he loved research and now has a fellowship for graduate study in radar systems and remote sensing at the University of Kansas.

Harnett personifies the determination that turned these African-American men into successful engineering students. Researchers call it grit. “Sustained effort and hard work over time, despite setback or failure, is, in part, the formula for black males’ academic success in college,” Strayhorn writes. That’s something educators need to work on, argues Morehouse’s Rockward: “We don’t put a lot into internal motivation.” Grit can be encouraged, Strayhorn argues, by “teaching them how to regulate effort over longer periods of time, to manage time well, and to set short- and long-term goals.” Also needed, says Ohio State’s Moore, is greater attention to “career efficacy.”

For African-American men who manage to avoid despair and get past crises, opportunities – and money – start to open up. Greenfield has a summer internship lined up at Goldman Sachs. Conley, Berry, Baker, and Tomlinson have graduate fellowships subsidized by industry through the GEM (Graduate Education for Minorities) Consortium. Companies are strengthening connections with Hampton and other HBCUs. Yet Tomlinson, whose fellowship involves a collaboration between GEM and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, says having a small black elite make gains is unsatisfactory. “It used to be a good thing to be the only African-American with a Ph.D., or on a board of directors. There should be more of us at these larger tables where decisions are made.”

Higher education as a whole, says Rockward, needs to recognize that taking six years to graduate isn’t extravagant. He’s seen students struggle for three years and then – “like whoa, man, what happened?” — something inside them starts clicking and they get A’s.


By Mark Matthews and Margaret Loftus

Mark Matthews is editor of Prism. Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.

 Image by Mariah Tauger/ Northeastern University