Engineering Schools Struggle for Diversity

They took a nation to the moon, invented TV, and soon America's still very white, very male community of engineers will add Cynthia Toscano to their ranks.

A smile dances across Ms. Toscano's face as she considers this - and the hurdles she leapt along the way. Early on, she found that Latina girls from the Bronx were not to tinker with motors, excel in math, or join the pocket-protector set.

She did all that anyway.

"My mother said you've got to do what's best for you," Ms. Toscano says. "If I didn't listen to her I probably would be at home right now."

Instead, the standout math student from the Bronx High School of Science was accepted at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y.

Rensselaer is one of the nation's toughest boot camps for would-be engineers. After five years of slogging, Toscano was rewarded at last week's graduation with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Yet such triumphs could soon become much rarer - beginning with graduation season this month, observers say.

While a record number of African-American, native American, and Hispanics (6,422) earned engineering degrees last spring, that number will begin dropping this year and over the next four to five years, many say.

That's because the number of minority freshmen enrolling in engineering fell 10.4 percent from 1992 to 1996, the last year data was available. That drop mirrors a national trend: The number of nonminority freshmen enrolling in engineering (about 85 percent of the total) also fell 8.9 percent.

Ironically, demand and salaries for engineers are soaring. Business is clamoring for more foreign engineers to be admitted to the United States, yet the potential of minorities is largely untapped, many observers say.

Minorities actually bucked the broad downward trend, with graduates rising fourfold between 1972 and 1992.

But rising tuitions, less generous financial-aid packages, and aggressive attacks on affirmative-action admissions policies and scholarships have all dampened minority interest in engineering.

Those, along with changing student attitudes, explain why fewer minorities are enrolling in engineering, says George Campbell, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering based in New York. He cites a broader shift away from long, costly, and difficult college programs.

"The current generation of students - minority and nonminority - is not signing up for engineering because they just don't seem to see the payoff," he says. He cites "a fundamental change in values, interests, and choices" among all students, minorities included.

Demographic trends do show an expected increase in 18-year-old minority high school graduates coming. And Lonnie Sharpe, dean of engineering at North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro, N.C., a historically black college that graduates more minority engineers than any other, hopes this means enrollment trends will turn around.

"We expect a turnaround - or at least neutral enrollment this fall," he says.

Yet even with more available minority graduates - and more of those taking pre-calculus and physics in high school - many are choosing other directions, Campbell believes.

Add, too, the perennial problem of prejudice in this mostly monochrome field of study. A major concern of many first-generation college students living away from home for the first time is whether they will be happy at a place where minorities are only 10.3 percent of the engineering student body.

That's the case at RPI, which is not a bad level for a prestigious eastern university. Still, RPI must compete with Ivy League schools and historically black colleges, where many perceive a higher social and academic "comfort level," admissions officers say.

Michael Henriques, a senior, says he likes RPI though he feels subtle bias. Even walking across campus he notices people walking by "real fast like I'm going to nab them," says the young black from Queens, N.Y. "In classes, when it comes to choosing work teams, I'm usually the last to be picked," he says. "But I can deal with that - that's America. That's why I wanted to go here instead of a historically black college - because this is real life."

Danielle Green, a junior computer systems engineer, also says RPI has been an excellent experience for her even though it was "a culture shock." She found that self-segregation among students has meant she rarely speaks with white students, although that is gradually changing for her.

But others do not make it. Nationally, two-thirds of minority students who enroll in engineering don't get an engineering degree, double the attrition of nonminorities.

"For a first generation college student, being away from home is stressful for them and their parents," says Mark Smith, who heads RPI's Office of Minority Student Affairs. "They get negative feedback or a bill they can't afford and figure: 'I can't pay for this. I'm leaving.' "

By staying in touch with minority students, RPI has raised its minority graduation rate from 50 percent a decade ago to 61 percent today. Beyond that, minority students say they have learned to shrug off race-based slights that might otherwise derail a career.

"As a woman doing freshman courses, I had guys telling me that I'm stupid - and why would I want to be an engineer," Toscano says. "When they found out I'm Hispanic they said that was why I got in. It made me doubt my abilities. And I almost quit."

Instead of quitting, though, she found new friends and solace at Mr. Smith's office and soon was back on track. "To comments like that I'd say today: 'I can do it,' " she says. "I am doing it."

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