Where There is None
ttracting minority students into engineering
programs is a challenge. A rural Midwestern school such as the University of Missouri-Rolla has double the difficulty, because it is a challenge to attract minority students, period.
At least, that was the issue 10 years ago, when it occurred to university officials that there might be more minority students enrolled in the area’s two-year institutions than at the four-year level.
“We realized it might be an untapped market for engineering students,” says Dr. Floyd Harris, who heads the Minority Engineering Program at the University of Missouri-Rolla.
As part of its ongoing effort to recruit minority engineering students, the university turned to the St. Louis Community College District, where 23.5 percent of the 30,000 students are African American. Teaming with St. Louis Community College and private industry, Harris helped develop a unique program that has increased the number of the university’s minority engineering transfer students from two in 1989 to 42 students in 1999.
“Our numbers are not large, but it has definitely worked for us,” Harris says, pointing out that while overall transfer enrollment at the university declined over the past five years, African American transfer enrollment has increased by 40 percent during the same time frame.
Now, with corporate sponsorship and a support network for students who don’t have soaring grade-point averages, the program could serve as a model to other university engineering professionals across the country who are still scratching their heads over how to recruit more minority engineering students.
Sky’s the Limit
Emerson Electric, a major employer in St. Louis that makes motors and other electrical components, carries the bulk of the financial burden for th e program during the community college phase. Under the arrangement worked out between the company and the two schools, Emerson Electric provides up to eight full scholarships annually to freshman minority engineering students enrolled at one of the three community college campuses. The scholarships cover all tuition, books and a stipend each semester for supplies.
To qualify for the scholarship, a student must be a member of an under-represented minority in the area of math, science and engineering. In St. Louis, that translates to African American, Hispanic or American Indian. The student must also graduate from high school with at least a 2.5 grade-point-average, two years of math and science and an ACT score of 18.
“The top students are already sought-after, so the largest pool of untapped resources is the group with slightly lower GPA and test scores,” Harris says. “This program is designed for those students.”
“An 18 [ACT score] is low compared to what engineering students need to have to enter a university, so we provide lots of support to make sure these students can get through the program,” said Dorothy McGuffin, scholarship coordinator at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley.
That support includes monthly group meetings, individual sessions with advisers and counselors, tutorial service and monitoring students’ attendance and grades throughout the semester.
The extra attention seems to be working. Of the 130 students who have participated in the Emerson Electric Minority Engineering Program in the last decade, 70 have graduated with an associate’s degree or are still enrolled. Much to the delight of university officials, 49 minority students in the Emerson transfer program have transferred to the University of Missouri–Rolla engineering program, where the scholarship money continues on a sliding scale based on GPA. So far, 30 students in the program have received bachelor’s degrees in engineering.
From there, the sky’s the limit.
“Engineers are one of our most sought-after, highest paid graduates today,” Harris says. “Close to 400 companies attend campus recruitments here, primarily for engineers.”
The Job Market
Indeed, the critical job market is the driving force behind this particular program. Emerson Electric turned to the community college in part because the number of its minority employees was not where the company thought it should be. By adding plant tours, employment workshops, and summer internships to the scholarships it offers students, the company hopes many will choose to accept job offers from Emerson when they graduate.
“Emerson knows the importance of having an educated work force,” McGuffin says.
Other companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Three years ago, Harris took the program to the Metropolitan Kansas City Community College District, teaming up with Sprint in hopes of attracting transfer students from 200 miles away. Once again, the plan worked.
“I thought I would go to Kansas State — I didn’t know anything about the university at Rolla,” says Eboni Cunningham, who just completed her first semester at the university with a 4.0 GPA.
As a high school senior in Kansas City, Cunningham says she just happened to see a brochure in her counselor’s office about the Rolla program. She met with a representative from the university who visited the high school and was eventually accepted into the Sprint program and awarded a scholarship to Longview Community College in Kansas City. After five semesters, she transferred with an associate’s in engineering to the University of Missouri–Rolla.
The 20-year-old Kansas City native is now spending her third summer working at Sprint, this year in the Web page development department. She plans to graduate from the university in December 2001, and then go straight into graduate school, “maybe at Rolla for engineering management or maybe another school for an MBA.”
When Cunningham finishes school, Sprint officials hope she’ll return to the company that sponsored her education, although she is under no obligation to do so.
“I’ll go with the best offer,” Cunningham says. “But I’ve been with Sprint for a while and I do like them.”
Reaching Even Further
Two years ago, the university reached out even farther, tapping into an engineering program six hours away at Scott Community College near Davenport, Iowa. There they found two eager business partners, creating the John Deere–Alcoa Minority Engineering Scholarship Program.
“The two companies work together as a unit with Scott [Community College officials] in interviewing and selecting students for the program, then decide who would fit better into which of our businesses,” says Rhonda Johnson, human resources representative for John Deere. “There’s a lot of competition in the marketplace and John Deere wants to focus here at home.”
The Scott Community College program is basically the same, but extends the minority definition to include female engineering students as well. Two of the students are currently working summer jobs with their sponsors, one with John Deere and one with Alcoa.
The Iowa program is tougher to get into, requiring 2.75 or better GPA and a higher ACT score.
“Our target is students who want to stay at home or who can’t afford to go straight to the university,” Johnson says.
Still, the hope for Harris is that they will want to leave home eventually and transfer to the University of Missouri–Rolla. To encourage and smooth that transition, the university thinks about retention even before the transfer takes place. Staff and administrators attempt to get to know the students while they are pursuing their associate’s degrees and offer a special course for new transfer students once they arrive.
They also encourage continued participation in the university’s student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. St. Louis Community College is the first two-year school in the country to have a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.
The goal of the Minority Engineering Program at the University of Missouri–Rolla is to graduate 69 minority students by 2005, through increased minority freshmen and transfer student enrollment and retention. The National Science Foundation sponsors eight minority students currently enrolled at community colleges in St. Louis and Kansas City through its Heartland Alliance for Minority Participation program, similar to the Emerson Electric and Sprint scholarships designed to encourage transfers to the university at Rolla.
But Harris isn’t finished yet. He is meeting with other potential business sponsors and visiting other community colleges in the hopes of creating more scholarship programs. And he believes his minority engineering program could serve as a model for different areas throughout the country.
“If we can do this in Missouri with the great distances between schools, it should work anywhere that community colleges and industries are interested in getting involved,” Harris says.
For additional information about the program, contact Dr. Harris at (573) 341-4212.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com