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APLU Report: Despite Recent Gains, Increasing African American & Hispanic Degrees in Engineering Seen as Key to Filling Employment Needs in High Tech Fields

December 18, 2018

Washington, DC – Despite significant gains in recent years, not enough African American and Hispanic students are earning engineering degrees in the United States to fill the growing demand for high tech workers, according to a new report released today from APLU. The publication, which pulled data from the 2010-11 to 2015-16 academic years, is unique in its approach to examine trends in engineering degrees by subdiscipline, race, gender, and degree level on the national and institutional level.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the 2018 Status Report on Engineering Education: A Snapshot of Diversity in Degrees Conferred in Engineering found that the 42 percent increase in engineering degrees for all students over the most recent five-year period outperformed all other major fields of study, which saw 11 percent in growth. The number of engineering degrees that Hispanic students earned grew 79 percent while black students saw an increase of 35 percent, the same as Asian students and greater than white students who saw 30 percent in growth.

However, the increases in engineering degrees among underrepresented groups is not enough to close the gap in nearly every state between the share of engineering degrees and their representation in the college age population of the state. Hispanic students comprise 19 percent of all college undergraduates, but only 11 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees conferred. The gap is similar for black students. And while the overall and engineering figures for American Indians is very small, they too are significantly underrepresented in engineering.

“It is encouraging to see such strong growth among Black and Hispanic students in engineering in recent years, but there remains a significant gap in representation that needs to be filled quickly if we are going to meet the needs and demands of employers in high tech fields and position the country for long-term economic growth,” said Eugene Anderson, vice president of access and success at APLU and lead author of the report. “The overall enrollment of white students has dropped 8 percent in recent years. While that hasn’t directly affected engineering programs yet, it likely will do so soon. The only way we’re going to fill those jobs is by enrolling and graduating more underrepresented minority students.”

While the percentage of growth was smaller than underrepresented groups, the actual number of white students earning engineering degrees comprises nearly half of the overall growth (14,769 out of 30,864). If the current five-year trend in the increase of engineering bachelor’s degrees remained the same for each group, by 2026, about 223,000 bachelor’s degrees in engineering would be conferred to U.S. residents from all groups, more than doubling the total conferred in 2016. However, if the number of white students earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering stops increasing over the next decade, like the current trend among all non-engineering degrees, the number of engineering bachelor’s degrees conferred to U.S. residents will only increase by 44,000 degrees.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • Gender Disparity in Engineering: Despite earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees overall, the percentage of engineering degrees earned by women ranges from 19.4 percent for white graduates to 26.8 percent among multi-racial graduates. Among white, Hispanic and black females, engineering was the eighteenth largest field of study. It ranked eighth for Asian American women. By contrast, engineering is the second most popular field of study for white and Asian American males. It ranks fourth largest for Hispanic males and eighth largest for black males.
  • High Concentration of Underrepresented Students in Small Number of Schools: The top 10 producers of engineering bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students conferred 25 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degree to Hispanic graduates and 20 percent to all black graduates. That trend was similar for other underrepresented groups. By contrast, 156 schools conferred less than 5 percent of their bachelor’s degrees in engineering to underrepresented groups (81 percent of those institutions are smaller engineering schools or programs that award less than 100 degrees overall).
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities & Hispanic Serving Institutions Play a Key Role: Although only 27 of the 533 schools with engineering undergraduate programs are HBCUs (5 percent), they confer 17 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees earned by black students. Four HBCUs were among the top 10 producers for black graduates and seven out of the top 10 producers among small-sized engineering programs are HBCUs. Forty-six of the 533 schools with engineering programs are HSIs (9 percent), yet they convey a third of all engineering degrees earned by Hispanic students. Six of the top 10 producers for Hispanic students are HSIs as are seven out of the top 10 medium-sized and seven out of the top10 small-sized engineering programs.
  • States with Majority-Minority College Age Population Aren’t Doing Enough to Educate a Large Enough Share of Underrepresented Group Students: There are seven states (including the District of Columbia) where a majority of 18-24-year-olds are from underrepresented groups: New Mexico (70 percent), Texas (60 percent), California (56 percent), District of Columbia (55 percent), Nevada (53 percent), Arizona (52 percent), and Florida (51 percent). The gap between underrepresented group college age populations and engineering graduates ranges from 30-34 percentage points for each state except Florida where the gap is 20 percentage points. In 17 other states a third to under half of all 18-24-year-olds are from underrepresented groups, but only 12 percent of engineering graduates from those states were from underrepresented groups. The gap between underrepresented college age population and graduates in engineering ranges from 21-34 percentage points.
  • Massive Growth in Non-U.S. Resident Graduates in Engineering: In 2016, Non-U.S. Resident graduates earned the majority of engineering master’s degrees, 58 percent. The shift to the majority of engineering master’s degree earners occurred dramatically over a relatively short period of time; increasing from 45.6 percent of all engineering master’s degrees in 2011 to 58.1 percent in 2016, a 12.5 percentage point increase in only five years. The rapid growth of Non-U.S. Resident graduates is a critical topic. Based on the data, it does not appear that the rapid growth of Non-U.S. Residents in engineering master’s degree programs crowded out U.S. citizens. Non-U.S. residents were heavily concentrated in electrical engineering and related subdisciplines.

Although the report doesn’t prescribe specific strategies for increasing the number of engineering degrees conferred to underrepresented groups, it provides a better understanding of where to focus efforts based on recent trends. For maximum impact on the number of engineering degrees conferred to underrepresented groups, efforts should be focused on two specific groups of institutions: 1) HBCUs and HSIs, which have shown an impact on the diversity of engineering that far exceeds the number of institutions that are HBCUs and HSIs and 2) universities with large engineering schools (primarily land-grant universities and large public universities) where even a small percentage increase will have a major impact on the overall number of underrepresented students earning engineering degrees.

On a national level, APLU is seeking to expand diversity in the STEM fields. Its ASPIRE Alliance, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison is aimed at increasing the diversity of STEM faculty as a means to attract more underrepresented students into the STEM fields. And APLU’s Powered by Publics initiative is bringing 130 public universities and systems together to scale innovative practices aimed at closing the achievement gap and graduating more students. In addition, APLU is planning to partner with its members, federal agencies, the tech industry, and other stakeholders to address this issue.

“There has been a focus on broadening participation within engineering, and other STEM fields, but the findings of this report show us that much more has to be done to achieve the levels of diversity and number of skilled workers needed,” Anderson said.

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