As they try to meet the demands of a world on the threshold of some of humankind’s most ambitious projects, engineering school officials throughout the nation are searching for an answer to the same question: Where are the students?
“I really don’t know why, but our data show a trend toward reduction in the number of students graduating in the next four or rive years,” says Jim Johnson, acting dean of the Howard University School of Engineering.
He is among the legion of engineering educators who say they can point only to anecdotal evidence to explain why — with engineering graduates reaching historically high numbers — a steep decline in enrollments is occurring.
Overall, the number of freshmen enrolling in engineering programs fell from 92,700 in the 1992-93 academic year to 84,300 in the 1994-95 academic year, according to figures compiled by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME).
Even more worrisome is the decline in the number of Blacks, Hispanics and women in engineering programs, NACME president Dr. George Campbell says.
“It’s very discouraging and could have calamitous results in terms of economic development for Black America,” Campbell says.
The reason for the dire implications has to do with the nature of the discipline, Campbell says. “Engineers are the engine of economic growth in the U.S.,” he says.
He explained that engineers translate theoretical breakthroughs in science into applied technology. And, as the percentage of minorities earning engineering degrees climbed from 2.9 percent in 1973 to 8.5 percent in 1994, Blacks have shared in significant technological advances.
In the communications arena, for example, African Americans have been key players in the reduction in size and the increase in power of cellular telephones, Campbell noted, adding that the General Motors development team that forged the latest wave of automotive body design was headed by Blacks.
Engineering educators say they don’t have the answers yet but, in recent interviews, agreed that the factors in the decline include:
* Low student motivation;
* Continued poor preparation by would-be college students to compete at the college level;
* Reduction of jobs through corporate downsizing; and
* Shifts in the funding available for tuition assistance.
The predictions of a future decline in minority engineers comes as the number of engineering graduates is at a historic high.
What is puzzling is the question of what is generating the enrollment drop.
With advances in communications, computer and space technology, a big demand for people trained to apply science to daily life is sure to come, say those concerned with the problem.
Yet, both statistical and empirical data indicate a decline is in the wings.
“We’ll see increases in graduations for another two or three years,” says Campbell.
But after graduation exercises for the class of 1998, the number of engineering students will drop, he and other engineering school administrators predicted.
One of the major reasons for the decline is financial, according to Giorgio McBeath, assistant dean of engineering and computer science at Ohio’s Wright State University.
“Financial demands are forcing engineering students to take fewer courses to maintain a good grade-point average, the kind of grade-point average that makes them attractive to would-be employers,” McBeath says.
In part, the trend reflects a decline in motivation that he sees among some African-American high school students. “They don’t want to be in an eat-sleep-study mode for a minimum of five years and that’s what it will take to be competitive in engineering,” he adds.
But the biggest factor in the predicted decline in minority engineers is the cost of an engineering education, says Campbell.
Campbell says that African-American students with the least financial resources are finding that financial assistance for them is limited to loans, while schools are giving scholarships to middle-class students in an effort to beef up school revenues.
According to Campbell, by giving scholarships to promising students whose parents can afford to pay partial tuition, a limited amount of scholarship money can be spread around and used to leverage an increase in cash flow for the school.
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