Renewed emphasis on gaps in college success for minorities

Minority achievement in science majors continues to lag, a new report indicates.

For Eric Adolphe, the price of an engineering degree included homelessness and hunger. Attending The City College of New York in the 1980s, he was down to his last $1.75 and had to skip breakfast so he could buy train fare to get to a crucial exam. He says he'll never forget his stomach growling loud enough for classmates to hear: "I'm competing with kids from all over the world ... having had nothing to eat for about two days."

A scholarship from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) came just in time to turn Mr. Adolphe into a symbol of the American dream instead of another college dropout. He went on to employ 400 people in one of the top black-owned engineering companies on the East Coast.

Now NACME is sounding an alarm, noting in a report Thursday that if trends don't change in education, there won't be enough Eric Adolphes to keep the United States competitive. The organization joins a number of groups that have been highlighting the gaps in college success for underrepresented minorities, particularly in science majors. They're also promoting strategies they believe can help close those gaps, whether it's mentoring minority college students, reaching out to show inner-city kids that science can be cool, or directing more financial aid to the students who need it most.

"We need to be concerned about maintaining American preeminence in science, engineering, and technology, and the reality is that unless we bring young minorities into [these] careers in dramatically increasing numbers, we're not going to be able to maintain that competitive edge," says Irving Pressley McPhail, NACME's executive vice president.

While 30 percent of undergraduates are Latinos, African-Americans, or American Indians, these groups make up 12 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering, NACME reports. They are projected to make up nearly 40 percent of college students by 2025, so preparation in younger grades needs to pick up pace, Mr. McPhail says.

Currently, only 4 percent of these minority students finish high school "engineering eligible," having passed requisite math and science courses. That lack of preparation shows up in the high rate at which students drop out of science majors in college, experts say. Many of them have trouble passing core courses.

NACME calls on educators, businesses, and government to tackle the challenges together. And for successful programs to continue, McPhail says, leaders in all three sectors need to stand up to the "anti-affirmative action movement."

The New York City College of Technology (City Tech) in Brooklyn has addressed these issues head on. As part of the Black Male Initiative (BMI) at the City University of New York (CUNY), it's working to recruit and retain more people in science, technology, and engineering. The program is open not only to African-American males, but to any student who wants mentoring and the possibility of partnering with professors on scientific research.

Participants are exposed to what it would take to earn a master's or PhD. "We have built this model around high expectations ... and [giving] attention to students individually," says Sonja Jackson, dean of curriculum and instruction.

The payoff, they hope, will be future engineers, scientists, and teachers who otherwise might not have considered such careers. Kurt Sealey, a City Tech student from Trinidad and Tobago, says he was only minimally interested in science until he had the chance to do research with Reginald Blake, a physicist and coordinator of BMI at City Tech. "I thought I couldn't do sciences," Mr. Sealey says. Now he's confident. Seeing African-American role models such as Mr. Blake is also helpful, he says, because it dispels the notion that "when you become a PhD, you wear bow ties and ... walk around with your nose in the air."

Some people within the civil rights community challenge the idea that there should be special programs focused on race or gender groups. "CUNY has adopted policies that I believe to be paternalistic, racist, and stigmatizing," says Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. The university could "have a retention program ... because of economic status, because of past high school experience," he says. "You can't use race and gender as proxies."

His group lodged discrimination complaints against two colleges in the CUNY system (although not City Tech) because their programs allegedly taught black males separately. The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating CUNY's BMI program, which receives city funding. OCR officials would not comment on the case.

Out of 120 City Tech BMI participants, about one-quarter are women and half are not African-American, Ms. Jackson says. Several students say the program is welcoming to all, and they love the guidance it offers. "I didn't feel any racial boundaries," says Stephen Driebe, a white participant. Renee Clarke says she was expecting the group to be mostly black males, but that it's very diverse. This summer, she'll be one of three BMI students to take a research trip to Mexico, a rare opportunity for students at her college.

City Tech is one of the Model Replication Institutions in a venture supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to boost the success of underrepresented minorities in science and math.

Spreading the word about efforts to close college achievement gaps is also the aim of a recent report by Education Sector, an independent policy group in Washington. It notes that at an average four-year college, the graduation rate for whites is about 20 percentage points higher than for blacks. But it goes on to highlight schools that have achieved graduation parity.

At Florida State University, for example, 72 percent of African-Americans graduate within six years, compared with 69 percent of whites. FSU has a comprehensive retention program for low-income and first-generation college students, about two-thirds of whom are black. Other schools are cited for creating first-year "learning communities" and "early alert" systems to help students who are struggling academically.

"It's not that we don't know how to help students graduate, [but] it takes a substantial amount of attention," says Kevin Carey of Education Sector, the report's author. Incentives for university leaders – everything from rankings to how their governing boards hold them accountable – "[are not] particularly sensitive to minority college-graduation rates, but they should be," Mr. Carey says.

Particularly in the business community, "there are pockets of people who understand the urgency," says Adolphe, a former NACME board member. Indeed, some middle schools and high schools now have corporate-funded curriculums to better prepare students to go on to major in such subjects as aerospace engineering and biotechnology.

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