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UPHILL CLIMB: THE STATUS OF AFRICAN AMERICANS IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

This is the first in a series of special reports on the status of underrepresented groups in science and engineering.  Eleanor Babco, Executive Director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology and Co-Pi to the MGE grant wrote this piece.  In the near future, papers on the status of Hispanics and women will be posted also.  Please make a point to visit this site periodically.

Prior to the 1970s, African Americans were largely invisible in the science and engineering community. The few of them who earned undergraduate degrees in science and engineering (S&E) did so primarily from one of the historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) established after the Civil War to maintain segregation of the races while providing education for a few middle class African Americans. The HBCUs also served as the major employer of these graduates in science and engineering. However, during that time, few HBCUs offered doctoral degrees; those awarded the degree before the 1960s studied at Ph.D.-granting institutions outside the southeastern U.S. or in non-U.S. schools.

Since that time, African Americans have made remarkable progress, but are still not on a level playing field with white males in terms of opportunities for preparation of science or engineering careers or for employment and advancement in those careers. This report will focus on the accomplishments of African Americans thus far and provide data to show that much remains before they achieve parity in the American science and engineering enterprise.

Population

African Americans constitute the largest racial minority group in the U.S. And their numbers continue to grow. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 1999 show the proportion of African Americans increased from 12.3% of the population in 1990 to 12.8% in 1999 or a total of 34.9 million. This compares with a decline in the proportion of whites from 83.9% in 1990 to 82.4% in 1999. Moreover, the U.S. Census Bureau projects by the middle of the next century, the African American population will nearly double to 61 million, or 15.5% of the estimated population of 394 million, compared to 295 million or 74.9% for whites. (Table 1). 

Thus, African Americans are projected to grow both proportionally and in absolute numbers during the first half of the next millennium. Yet, if their median age continues to grow and if their birth rate stabilizes, their rate of growth may actually decrease since more will live longer. Assuming their projected growth, the question is whether they will have corresponding opportunities to grow, advance, and become part of the American mainstream. The following parts of this report will strive to provide some answers. 

School-Age Population

The number of school age African Americans (ages 5-24) is expected to increase markedly between 1995 and the middle of the 21st century from 11,348 to 19,045 by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (Table 2). This 68% growth projection is more than twice the 27% growth rate projected for white American school age students. As a result the composition of the pool from which our scientists and engineers are drawn will be changing. Will African American students be prepared for pursuing science-based careers?

Median Age

The median age for African Americans in 1992 was 28.2 (26.7 for males; 29.6 for females), as against 34.3 for whites (33.3 for males; 35.2 for females), or 33.3 for the total U.S. population (33.8 for males; 34.3 for females). But by 1998, the median ages for African Americans was 29.6, compared to 37.2 for Whites, and 34.6 for the total population (Table 3). These increases for all groups resulted for a variety of reasons, foremost among them better health care and disease prevention measures, absence of war or prolonged combat, and a longer living population generally. So the future for African Americans as well as for others in terms of increased longevity and being able to capitalize on educational and career opportunities appears promising.

Educational Attainment

Beginning in the 1980s, there was significant growth in the educational attainment of African Americans, as measured by their test scores in science and mathematics and their participation in higher education. In 1992, those aged 25 and higher who had completed high school stood at 67.7%, up from slightly more than 50% a decade earlier. Those receiving a baccalaureate also increased from 7.9% to 12.0% in that same interval. By 1998, 76% of African Americans had completed high school and nearly 15% had earned a baccalaureate. And, almost equal percentages of African Americans (25.3%) and whites (25.7%) had earned associate degrees or had some college experience. Despite these gains, African Americans still lag behind whites. In 1998, 87.1% of whites had completed high school and 26.6% had completed a baccalaureate (Table 4). But clearly, many more African Americans were advancing educationally.

Pre-College

Some of this advancement potential has been measured since 1973 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 9-, 13-, and 17-year old students in science and mathematics, among other subjects. Between 1973 and 1996, mathematics proficiency scores

improved 11.6% for African American 9-year olds, compared to a 5.3% improvement for white 9-year-olds. African American 13-year olds scores also improved, though with some plateauing in later years. And among black 17-year young people, scores peaked in 1990, dropped slightly thereafter, and been steady since (Figure 1). Nonetheless, African American students continued to regularly score below their white counterparts during the past two decades on the mathematics achievement tests.

In science, African American students do not score as well as whites regardless of age group, but there has been some improvement. For 9-year-olds, the average score for African Americans increased nearly 13% between 1973 and 1996, compared to only a 1% increase for white 9-year-old students. For 13-year-old African American students, a 5% increase in their science scores was reported between 1970 and 1996, compared to only a 1% increase for white 13-year-old students. And while 17-year-old African Americans increased their average scores less than 1% between 1970 and 1996, the average scores for white 17-year-old students dropped 2% (Figure 2). However, despite this gain for African Americans, a racial gap in scores remains.

Although a higher percentage of African Americans in grade 12 were enrolled in a mathematics courses in 1996 compared to whites (70% vs 63%), they were less likely to have taken the advanced math courses. For example, in 1996, 8% of whites reported taking calculus as their highest math course, compared to 3% of African Americans, while 15% of whites reporting taking pre-calculus or third-year algebra as their highest math course compared to 11% of African Americans.). However, equal numbers of African American and white students in grade 12 had taken a geometry course (82% vs. 81%). But whites took more AP honors courses in chemistry and physics than did African Americans.

The potential for continued educational attainment was enhanced by African Americansí improvement in their scores over the past ten years in both the verbal and math sections of the SAT test. Nonetheless, the scores for African Americans continue to be significantly lower than those for whites and Asians. In 1998, African Americans had an average SAT score of 434 in the verbal and 426 in the math section. This compares with a 526 in the verbal and 528 in the math for white students and 498 and 562 in the verbal and math sections for Asians. 

Undergraduates

From 1980 to 1996, the number of African Americans enrolled in undergraduate programs grew 33% (from 1,018,800 to 1,352,600), while the rate of growth for whites was about 3% (from 8,480,700 to 8,730,900). By 1996, African Americans still represented only 11% of the total undergraduate population, compared to more than 71% for whites. (Table 5). However, data from the U.S. Census Bureau report that African Americans were 15% of the college-age population (age 18-24). Interestingly, the number of African American men enrolling in undergraduate schools increased slightly more than 18% compared to a 40% gain for African American women between 1980 and 1996. Thus, African American women increased their proportional advantage over African American men in their pursuit of higher education.

However, when baccalaureate degrees in science and engineering awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents are examined, the data are slightly less encouraging (Table 6). In 1996, African Americans earned 7.4% of baccalaureates awarded in science and engineering, but there were differences among the individual disciplines, ranging from 5.7% in the physical sciences to 6.1% in engineering, 6.3% in the biological sciences, and 7.8% in mathematics. Of note is that African Americans earned nearly 11% of the baccalaureates awarded in computer science in 1996 (Figure 3).

When the progress in the number of African American degree recipients in science and engineering over the period 1989-1996 is reviewed, there is reason for optimism about the future. As Table 6 shows, the number of bachelor's degree earned by African Americans in science and engineering grew by 67.1%, compared to an increase of only 10.5% for whites and 20.3% for all who received science and engineering baccalaureates. Even in the natural sciences (physical, earth/environmental, mathematical, computer and life sciences) the growth rate of African Americans outpaced whites. Between 1969 and 1996, the number of degrees in the natural sciences earned by African Americans increased 44.4% (from 6,005 to 8,670) compared to a 16.7% gain for whites. In engineering, overall, the number of bachelorís degrees dropped 5.8%, but the number earned by African Americans increased 45.1% (though the numbers were small at only 3,000 or fewer graduates each year out of a total population of about 60,000 per year).

African American women earn a higher proportion of bachelorís degrees in comparison to their male counterparts than do women of other races. In science and engineering fields, they earned nearly 60% of the bachelorís degrees, whereas for all fields they accounted for 64% of all degrees conferred. However, of the 17,355 bachelorís degrees in science and engineering earned by African American women, nearly 65% were in the social and behavioral sciences.

Although the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) comprise only 4% of all four-year colleges and universities, they conferred over 28% of all bachelorís degrees earned by African Americans, and nearly 31% of those in science and engineering. The top three institutions awarding bachelorís degrees to African Americans in science and engineering in 1996 were North Carolina Agricultural and Tech State University (485), Norfolk State University (431) and, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (415) - all HBCUs. Table 7 shows the top three schools awarding bachelorís degrees in the broad fields of science and engineering. The majority of these institutions are HBCUs. The role of the HBCUs may become more pinnacle in the education of African Americans in science and engineering with the award of more than $42 million over five years by the National Science Foundation to promote the participation of members of underrepresented minority groups in engineering, mathematics, science and technology.

The Graduate Years

Overall, total graduate enrollment continued its upward movement from 1982 through 1993. However, from 1994 through 1997, enrollment declined 3.7% for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. As they had at the undergraduate level, African Americans increased their numbers in graduate school. In 1993, African Americans comprised 5.3% of total enrollments; by 1997, they increased their proportion to 6.1% (Table 8). And, again as at the undergraduate level, African American women were more visible than their male counterparts in graduate institutions. But there were differences by field.

In engineering, while total graduate enrollment dropped over 15% (from 76,039 to 64,586), enrollment of African Americans increased over 6% (from 2,784 to 2,874). However, despite this growth, American Americans still only represented slightly more than 4% of graduate enrollment in engineering in 1997.

In the physical sciences, total enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents dropped about 11%, but it increased about 11% for African Americans (from 856 to 952). Despite this gain, African Americans accounted for only 4.7% of total enrollment in the physical sciences in 1997.

In computer sciences a slightly different picture emerged. For all U.S. citizens and permanent residents, graduate enrollment rose less than 1% while enrollment of African Americans increased over 10% (from 1,182 to 1,303).

It is interesting to note that African American women resemble white women in their choice of career field. They are concentrated in the social, behavioral and biological sciences. In engineering, the physical, math, and computer sciences, men predominate. 

Financial Support in Graduate School

Such support principally takes the form of fellowships and assistantships augmented at times by student loans or personal funds. While long a part of the pattern in graduate school, it seems clear that African Americans fare less well in qualifying for such financial assistance than do other races. For example, among all U.S. citizen science and engineering students, 61% received support in the form of fellowships or assistantships - 60% for whites, but only 53% for blacks (Figure 4). Support was highest in the physical sciences (79% overall) and biological sciences (74%) and lowest in engineering (63%) and mathematics (64%).

Looked at from another perspective, the National Science Foundation found that from 1993-96 about 40% of whites were debt free during graduate training, but only 27% of the underrepresented minorities (including African Americans) could be so classified.

Graduate Degrees

African Americans are earning more masterís degrees in virtually all fields. During the 1989-96 period, they increased their output of masterís degrees by 83% (from 13,455 to 24,588). And they more than doubled the number of science and engineering masterís degrees received (from 1,652 to 3,518) (Table 9). In comparison, white students recorded a 17.9% gain in S&E masters' degrees, and an overall increase of 23.5%. In engineering, the increase in number of masterís degrees earned by African Americans was almost 90%, compared to about a 6% gain for white students. However, it is important to note that despite this growth, African Americans still only earned 674 masterís in engineering in 1996 compared to 13,573 for whites. In the natural sciences, the figures were similar. Although African Americans nearly doubled the number they earned (from 495 to 932) and there was almost no growth for whites, in 1996 they still only earned 4.2% of the masterís degrees granted in the natural sciences to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Again, African American women hold a big edge over African American men in total masterís degrees earned (Figure 5). In 1996, women earned 16,590 masterís degrees - more than twice the 7,998 earned by men. In science and engineering, women also held at edge, earning a total of 1,953 compared to 1,565 for men. However, in engineering and the physical, math and computer sciences, men held an edge.

Encouraging as these gains are for African Americans at the masters degree level, it is important again to note that they still represent a modest proportion of U.S. citizens and permanent residents earning masterís degrees in science and engineering. 

At the doctoral level, although there has been steady, albeit, slow growth in the number of African Americans earning PhDs over the past eight years (1989-1996), they still represented only 3.1% of all doctorates awarded in science and engineering to U.S. citizens and permanent residents in 1996. That year, the total number of African Americans earning doctorates in science and engineering was 576, compared with nearly 14,000 white Americans, and less than half of those (281) were in the natural sciences and engineering. In engineering alone, African Americans earned 74 PhDs in 1996, 2.2% of the 3,383 received by all U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In fact, only 1,457 doctorates were awarded in all fields to African Americans in 1996 (Table 10). 

At the doctorate level, African American men have an edge over African American women. In 1996, men earned about 20% more doctorates in science and engineering than did women. However, again the numbers are quite small - 323 for men vs. 253 for women.

There are very few HBCUs that grant science and engineering doctorates. The exception to this is Howard University, which is the only Research Level I University that is an HBCU. One other university stands out in educating African Americans in science and engineering at the doctoral level Ė a majority institution - Georgia Institute of Technology.

Years to Doctoral Degree

Between 6-10 years is both the median and average number of years for all graduate students to complete their education between receipt of the bachelor's and doctoral degrees in science and engineering (Table 11). However, it takes some groups longer than others to do so. The median for African Americans nudges into the 11-15 year category, mainly because by the tenth year fewer than half (46.3%) have obtained their PhD. Among white students, 61.6% have their doctoral degree in hand by the same time. Several reasons can be postulated for this situation, among them pursuit of other income producing opportunities along the way, different support mechanisms as discussed earlier, and family development, to name a few.

The Labor Force

Despite the gains in preparing for careers in science and engineering, African Americans face an upward climb in penetrating the U.S. S&E workforce. In 1997, there were 12,530,700 persons in the science and engineering workforce, of whom 10,585,600, or nearly 85%, were actually employed in science and engineering. However, of those employed in S&E, only 5.3% (555,600) were African Americans, and this proportion did not change appreciably during the 1990s, according to data obtained from the National Science Foundation SESTAT Database. There was little difference in the proportion of African Americans employed in science and engineering by degree level, ranging from as many as 5.6% at the bachelorís level to 4.4% at the Masterís, but only 3.1% at the doctoral level. 

The proportion of African Americans employed in science and engineering varied by field of degree. African Americans were much more likely to be social and behavioral scientists and less apt to be engineers or physical, computer or mathematical scientists. For example, only 2.6% of the 1.9+ million engineers, 3.2% of the 679,700 physical and earth scientists, and 4.4% of the life scientists were African Americans (Table 12). 

Of the 580,300 employed doctoral level scientists and engineers who received their highest degree in science or engineering, only 12,800 (2.2%) are African Americans. This proportion varies by field of degree, ranging as low as only 1.4% of the PhD engineers and computer/math scientists to 3.5% of the social scientists. 

Of all scientists and engineers in the labor force, regardless of field, very few (1.8%) were unemployed in 1997. For African Americans though, the unemployment rate was slightly higher at 2.5%. Nearly 90% of African Americans who were employed were working full-time, about the same percentage as whites. The remainder were either retired or voluntarily out of the labor force.

By employment sector, slightly more than half of African Americans were employed in business and industry, while about 25% each were employed in academe and government. By comparison, 70% of whites who were employed in science and engineering worked in business and industry, 18% in academe and 12% in government. These percentages varied somewhat by degree level (Figure 6), as well as field with engineers and computer scientists more likely to work in industry. Additionally, African Americans working in science and engineering were more likely to be engaged in management, sales, administration (61%) and less likely to be teaching or working in computer applications (about 20% each). 

The largest proportion of African Americans employed in science and engineering at the baccalaureate level are between ages 30-39. This is also true for whites and other ethnic groups. However, at the masterís and doctoral level, African Americans are more likely to be in the 40-49 age range, as are whites and other ethnic groups. 

The business/industry sector paid best, especially for those with advanced degrees. African Americans had an annual salary of $50,000 when employed in science and engineering occupations in 1997, 20% less than they earned working in academe. Salaries varied by occupation. Median annual salaries were higher for all scientists and engineers working in engineering or as managers and administrators. This was also true for African Americans who reported annual salaries of $52,000 working as engineers and $50,000 working as managers/administrators (Table 13). While whites working in science and engineering occupations report higher salaries, part of the disparity could be attributed to field concentrations and level of degree. 

Faculty

Despite employment gains during the past two decades, faculty of color have worked primarily at historically black colleges and universities. In 1995, of the 550,822 full-time instructional faculty in institutions of higher education, 26,835 or 4.9%, were African Americans. This proportion is up slightly from 1993 when 4.7% of the total full-time instructional faculty was African Americans, but up 39.6% over the 1985-95 decade. African American men accounted for 3.8% of all male full-time faculty in 1995, the same percentage as in 1993, but up slightly from the 3% in 1985. African American women represented 6.8%, the same percentage as in 1993, but down slightly from 7% a decade earlier.

African Americans achieved a 67% gain in the number of full professorships held from 1985 to 1995, but of the 159,333 who were full professors in 1995, only 4,768 (or 3%) were African American. While the number of African American women showed a 110% increase in the 1985-95 decade at the full professor level, only 4,768 (6%) of the 28,393 full professors were African American. The number of African American men doubled during the same interval, but still was only 3,085 (2%) of the 130,940 full professors in 1995. 

Of the total full-time instructional faculty in 1995, 28.9% were full professors, but only 17.8% of African Americans held this rank, and while 12.1% of the total were instructors, a larger proportion, 18.1% of African Americans, were at this level (Figure 7). 

The numbers are not any better in the science and engineering academic workforce. In 1997, of the 143,200 ranked doctoral scientists and engineers who were employed full-time as faculty in four-year colleges and universities, 3,800 or 2.7% were African Americans. Of the 65,100 who had achieved full professorships, only 1.8% or 1,200 were African Americans. 

Among full-time ranked science and engineering faculty, 32% of African Americans (1,200 out of 3,800) compared with 48% of whites (57,200 out of 120,500) had achieved the rank of full professor. These differences are partly related to differences in age, with African American scientists and engineers younger on average than white scientists and engineers. African Americans also were less likely to be tenured than were whites (46% vs. 57%). However, a higher percentage of African Americans than whites were in tenure-track positions (28% vs 16%). African American women faculty were less likely than white women and less likely than men of any racial/ethnic group to be full professors. 

African American faculty also were less likely than other racial minority groups to have received federal grants or contracts. Thirty-one percent of African American doctoral scientists and engineers employed in colleges or universities were supported by federal contracts or grants compared with 44% of white doctoral scientists and engineering employed full time.

Finding and keeping African American faculty is and will continue to be a challenge. The small gains in the number of African American PhD graduates in science and engineering is so that the anticipated additions to the pool in the coming years will not make much of a difference in the proportional make-up of S&E faculty. Colleges and universities face an uphill climb in filling tenure track positions with African Americans. 

Summary

African Americans have made some progress in increasing their participation in the science and engineering enterprise. Their test scores have risen; the number graduating from high school and entering college is increasing; the number receiving baccalaureates and going onto graduate school is increasing. But the proportions doing so are not large enough or climbing sufficiently to make much of a difference in the total makeup of the pool. If the U.S. wants to continue its worldís leadership in science and technology, it must utilize the talent of all of its citizens, capitalizing on the many advantages of diversity. The traditional base of our science and engineering enterprise, white males, is decreasing. We cannot afford to wait several generations for significant change to occur. 

 

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