Growing demand for tech workers is fueling an increase in undergraduate engineering degrees. While underrepresented groups are experiencing those gains, too, the uptick is not sufficient to close the gap between their share of those degrees and their share of the college-age population in their state, according to a new report from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
For example, while the number of engineering bachelor's degrees awarded to Hispanics climbed 79% from 2010-11 to 2015-16, their share of all engineering degrees increased just two percentage points from 2011, to 10% in 2016. The situation is similar for black students, whose 4% share of undergraduate engineering degrees was flat from 2011 to 2016 while their degree attainment grew 35% for the period.
Meanwhile, white students' enrollment at four-year universities dropped 8% overall, and their share of bachelor's engineering degrees rose 30% for the period, a trend that could impact the state of engineering programs, said Eugene Anderson, the APLU's vice president of access and success. "The only way we're going to fill those jobs is by enrolling and graduating more underrepresented minority students," he said in a statement.
Although underrepresented minorities and women are increasingly entering engineering and related fields, they face barriers to doing so throughout the K-12 pipeline and into college. That can include a lack of funding and resources targeted specifically at minorities, fewer role models, and limited access to the necessary technology and instruction among low-income students at lower-resourced schools.
The gap between underrepresented racial and ethnic groups' college-age population and their share of engineering degrees is also apparent in majority-minority states, the report found. In six such U.S. states and the District of Columbia where the majority of 18-to-24-year-olds are from underrepresented backgrounds, the gap spans 30 to 34 percentage points, except in one, Florida, where the gap is 20 percentage points.
Several colleges are looking to create stronger and more apparent pathways for underrepresented students in engineering and related fields. Recent efforts include a partnership between the Penn State Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization, Norfolk State University and Tidewater Community College to raise recruitment and retention of students from minority backgrounds at HBCUs and community colleges. The program aims to offer remote access to key research tools as well as research experience and educator training.
Improving faculty diversity is also an important step toward recruiting and retaining more students from underrepresented backgrounds. A recent study from the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center found that 44% of U.S. public colleges have 10 or fewer full-time black faculty members. Other studies have also shown a lack of racial diversity among faculty.
In September, the National Science Foundation announced it would award $10 million to a nationwide academic partnership designed to increase diversity among STEM faculty. The partnership aims to support environments that foster inclusion and diversity in order to draw more underrepresented students into STEM fields, retain them and help them graduate and succeed in the workforce.
Colleges are strengthening their faculty recruitment pipelines in other ways, such as through the addition of anti-bias training for those involved in the hiring process and identifying, preparing and supporting graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds for faculty positions.