The Power of Partnerships
By Michele N-K Collison
Dr. Calvin Mackie almost didn’t become an engineer. Although he had a 3.9 grade point average when he graduated from New Orleans’ John McDonough Senior High School, he only scored 900 on the SAT—- not nearly enough to be admitted to many of the nation’s engineering schools.
When he attended a college fair at Georgia Institute of Technology, the recruiter wouldn’t even give him an application but pointed him instead to another table — the Atlanta University Center Dual-Degree program.
“I thank God that he sent me to that table,” says Mackie, now an assistant professor of engineering at Tulane University. “I wouldn’t have survived Georgia Tech if I had gone there first.” Mackie not only survived but also earned his bachelor’s of science in mathematics from Morehouse and earned additional bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degees in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech.
But Mackie’s success story is not the norm, educators say. Every year thousands of high school seniors are overlooked by engineering programs because they didn’t go to the “right” school, take the right courses, or do well on a standardized test. According to the National Action Council on Minorities in Engineering (NACME), 50 percent of all minority engineering graduates come from only 10 percent of the nation’s engineering institutions, many of them HBCUs like North Carolina A&T and Prairie View A&M universities. Many of the nation’s engineering schools produce graduating classes with less than 5 percent minority representation annually.
At a time when companies are desperate for engineers, educators say partnerships like the Georgia Tech/Atlanta University Center Dual-Degree program may hold the key to significantly increasing the number of underrepresented engineers. The Florida A&M/Florida State universities’ College of Engineering is another example experts point to for its ability to produce large numbers of minority engineers. (See Black Issues, March 18, 1998).
Georgia Tech’s dual-degree program, which works in cooperation with the four historically Black colleges and universities that participate in the Atlanta University Center, has made Tech one of the top producers of minority engineering students in the country. Georgia Tech, a predominantly White university, ranks second behind North Carolina A&T, a historically Black University, in graduating African Americans with undergraduate degrees in engineering. But while Tech gets credit for graduating 140 Black engineers in 1998, 70 of those students came from participating AU Center institutions, according to DaLinda Brown Clark, director of the Atlanta University Center’s dual-degree engineering program.
Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, and Clark Atlanta University are the HBCUs that participate in the program. Both Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University schools have other colleges and universities that participate in their engineering programs as well.
The key to the program’s success, says Brown Clark, is the cooperation between the institutions.
“If more institutions would set up these types of programs, we would be able to get more minority students in the engineering pipeline,” she says. The program was created in 1969 to increase the number of minority students going into math, science, and engineering.
Educators say these programs are especially critical because the number of minority students enrolling in engineering programs is just now beginning to increase after a precipitous decline from 1992-97. In 1998, 14,635 minority freshmen enrolled in engineering programs nationwide, the largest number since 1993. But Dr. George Campbell, NACME president, says that number is still well below the peak year of 1992-93, when the total number of minority freshmen was 15,181.
After posting steady enrollment gains in the 1980s, engineering departments suffered enrollment declines. Campbell says enrollment suffered because of a combination of factors. First, many minority students cannot enter engineering programs because they attend high schools that fail to prepare them with the necessary math and science grounding. Secondly, attacks on affirmative action like Prop. 209 in California hurt minority enrollment in engineering schools. In addition, Campbell says, during the 1990’s, thousands of engineers lost their jobs during a nationwide recession and students got the message that there were no jobs for engineers.
But Campbell says that may be changing as stories about technology companies capture the imaginations of today’s students. “Engineers are in tremendous demand,” says Campbell. “They’re getting bonuses like NBA players.”
Dual-degree programs provide a way to increase the number of minority engineers, Campbell says. “It’s a win-win situation,” for HBCUs who may not have the financial resources to build an engineering program and for predominantly white universities who want to increase the number of minorities who earn engineering degrees from their institutions.
Tech’s engineering dean, Dr. Jean-Lou Chameau, admits that many minority students would not meet his school’s entrance requirements if their only option was to enter the program as freshmen.
“Based on their high school performance, many couldn’t enter Georgia Tech,” he says. “But with this dual-degree program, many are finding success. If these students have the interest, it makes sense to offer the opportunity.”
Brown Clark says many students who enter the dual-degree program do not do well on college entrance exams.
“The door is closed on so many students,” Brown Clark says. “Dual-degree programs open doors for many students who go on to be successful engineers.”
But more and more Black students in the dual-degree program had the grades and test scores to be admitted to Georgia Tech,” says Gordon Moore, director of Georgia Tech’s Office of Minority Education. Students like Gary Jones, who was accepted to both the dual-degree program and Georgia Tech. Jones who is now a doctoral candidate in engineering decided to attend Clark Atlanta University, says he decided to attend enroll in the dual-degree program because of the performance of the dual-degree students. “It’s die or die at Georgia Tech. Clark Atlanta is just a more nurturing environment,” he says.
The program could be more successful, Moore says. “If he AU Center dual degree program had more resources, more staff and more of a power base at the four institutions that it was asked to coordinate, you would see more students in the engineering program,” he says.
Students in the dual degree program also benefit from tutors, support programs and internship opportunities sponsored by Brown-Clark’s office and Georgia Tech’s OMED office. Sixty-five percent of Georgia Tech’s Black students graduate in five years, while 95 percent of the dual degree students who continue at Georgia Tech graduate in five years.
But just because the environment is more nurturing doesn’t mean that the work is easy. “I tell students that this is not a resort because this is Black higher education,” Brown Clark says. “It takes the same discipline, dedication, and determination to get the degree in computer science on this end that it takes to get an engineering degree at Georgia Tech.”
“Students get the experience of having two worlds,” says Dr. Lugbemiga Olatidoye, associate professor in engineering at Clark Atlanta University. “The experience of [studying at] an HBCU and [of attending] a major research university.”
Another reason commonly attributed to the Georgia Tech/AU Center program’s success in attracting so many Black students is its location in Atlanta.
“We have a critical mass of Black students. We’re in Atlanta, next to Morehouse, Spelman, and Morris Brown,” Chameau says. “It didn’t happen by accident.”
That also may be the reason why the FAMU/FSU College of Engineering attracts so many students. “There is a level of comfort,” says Dr. Ching-Jen Chen, dean of the FAMU/FSU College of Engineering. “There are other African American students in the program. [The FAMU students] aren’t the only ones.”
The FAMU/FSU College of Engineering was born out of the Florida legislature’s unwillingness to fund two state engineering colleges within a few miles of each other. Instead, the lawmakers funneled resources toward building one college and required FSU and FAMU to work together. The FAMU/FSU School of Engineering is one of the top producers of minority engineers in the country. In 1998, it graduated 126 minority engineers. In this year’s Black Issues Top 100, FAMU ranked sixth in awarding baccalaureate degrees in engineering to minorities.
Chen says the engineering college is one of the best places for minority students because it offers more doctoral degrees than any other historically Black institution.
Chen acknowledges that one of the reasons more minority students don’t get admitted to engineering schools is because of tough admissions standards. But he says his school graduates good engineers. “We want to have standards, but we also want to have opportunity,” Chen says.
One of the reasons these programs work so well is because minority students can build a support system,” says Dr. Emmanuel Collins, associate professor and associate chair of graduate studies at the FAMU/FSU School of Engineering. “Minority students don’t thrive at White universities not because they can’t do the work but because they don’t have support systems. It’s harder to find people to study and socialize with.”
Other universities would like to replicate the success of the Atlanta and Florida programs. Norfolk State and Old Dominion University are working on plans to establish a dual-degree engineering program in the fall of 2000. Norfolk has an electronic engineering program but it is not accredited,” says Dr. Larry Mattix, head of physics and electronic engineering at Norfolk State.
“Every year we get calls from students who are interested in engineering.” Mattix says the university had considered building its own department but concern about the cost and duplication of programs persuaded them to pursue a dual-degree program with Old Dominion. It will be good for us and good for them, because Norfolk will attract students who want to major in engineering and Old Dominion can boost the number of minorities earning engineering degrees.
Educators say it is critical that the country stop ignoring the wealth of talent in minority communities.
“What would have happened if Morehouse had closed the door on Calvin Mackie?” Brown Clark asks. “If we keep closing the door on students, we’re going to miss out [sic] on a lot of good students with a lot of promise.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com