Want to Graduate? Join NSBE

NSBE works. As members and leaders, we know this anecdotally, but one study quantified NSBE’s impact on graduation rates. In their recent submission to the American Society for Engineering Education, Monique Ross of Purdue University and Susan McGrade, Ph.D. of the Indiana Institute of Technology found that 82 percent of black students who were NSBE members at a Midwestern university graduated within six years, compared with only 7.7 percent of non-NSBE, African-American engineering students. Eighty-two percent. That means the NSBE members graduated at a rate more than 10 times higher than that of non-NSBE students.

Why does NSBE work? In this paper, the authors assert that NSBE provides a holistic social space for members to engage in quality relationships, participate in activities and cultivate a sense of belonging. NSBE promotes a culture of solidarity, so increasing retention in engineering as a direct result of mutual support fits the society’s narrative perfectly. Transcripts of interviews with participants in the study, both current students and recent alumni, tell a compelling story, when coupled with statistics obtained from the university database. The three major recurring themes about the value of NSBE that surface in these interviews are family, confidence and pride.

The university at the center of this study is described as a “small, Midwestern, predominantly white university” with no minority engineering program coordinator, no black faculty in the College of Engineering and no other notable black student organizations on campus. This is where NSBE excels: in spaces where the black community craves organization. Think about the story of NSBE’s founders, affectionately known as “the Chicago Six.” They started by simply coming together with the common goal of graduating, and although they were a small group, they supported each other when their larger campus community did not.

One of the most exciting findings of this research is that NSBE membership facilitated feelings of belonging to both the engineering community and the broader campus community among the student participants in the study. Students who felt connected to NSBE also felt connected to engineering and the campus as a whole, despite the small African-American population and utter lack of black faculty in their discipline. In the comments included in the paper, participants reveal that NSBE provided them with a sense of community they may otherwise not have had or that they did not have during other stages of their education. Many of the NSBE members share stories of being “the only black kid” in class and tell how sharing that experience with others diminished their feelings of isolation.

When students join NSBE, they become members of a global network of engineers, most of whom have experienced the unique difficulties that come with being an African American in their field. If nothing else, this research should encourage our outreach to non-NSBE members, especially those who are struggling. It is not enough for current members to succeed: as a Society, we must continually invite others into our community to make progress toward the goal of graduating 10,000 Black Engineers every year at the bachelor’s degree level. With 2025 swiftly approaching, achieving this dramatic increase in engineering graduates may seem like a daunting task, however, the first step can be as simple as an invitation.

Source: Ross, M. and McGrade, S. (2016). An exploration into the impacts of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) on student persistence. Submitted to the American Society for Engineering Education’s 123rd Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, La.

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Why Engineering? College Majors and Earnings for African Americans

Why are you an engineer? In making the decision to major in engineering, I’m sure many of you at least considered earning potential, even if that wasn’t your primary motivation. However, a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that African Americans tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paying majors. Given the vocational consequences of a college major, this pattern presents a significant economic issue for black families.

The report notes that African Americans are significantly overrepresented in “intellectual and caring professions,” meaning their salaries do not reflect their years of higher education. With a bachelor’s degree in fields such as social work and human services or community organization — both fields with about 20 percent African-American graduates — median earnings are around $40,000. With a bachelor’s degree in engineering, an individual makes an annual salary upwards of $70,000, on average. However, only 5 percent of engineers are African American. The salary discrepancy becomes alarming when one considers that it means a difference of well over $1 million in lifetime earnings.

Why might African Americans tend to choose majors with the lowest earning potential? Although the paper does not speculate on causes, I have a few theories. The first is math, or, more accurately, aversion to math. Countless studies have shown that math classes deter African Americans from STEM majors (Elliott et al., 1996; May & Chubin, 2003; Russell & Atwater, 2005): it may be that some black students view less math-intensive majors as less intimidating and, therefore, can easily imagine themselves succeeding in those fields. This is why math readiness is so crucial before entering college. African Americans and their white counterparts enter college with drastic inequalities because of differences in access to higher-level math instruction.

A second theory I have that may explain why African Americans tend to major in low-paying fields concerns the dearth of role models. As the report notes, African Americans are overrepresented in fields like health and medical administration services, human services and community organization, and social work. Thus, young black children see more social workers, office administrators and counselors who look like them. Although these types of jobs are essential, engineering is one of the fastest-growing vocations with the potential for high earnings. Fewer black graduates in high-paying fields means fewer role models for the younger generation.

My final theory related to the pattern of selecting low-paying majors involves the perception of higher-paying majors as more self-serving and less beneficial to the community. Any NSBE member can proudly state that “positively impact(ing) the community” is integral to our identity. However, do other students know that as an engineer, you constantly serve the greater good? Engineers help save the environment, advance medical technology, create safer vehicles and repair crumbling infrastructure. Education and exposure are key. As African Americans, we feel a strong sense of community and want to be part of something greater than ourselves. As engineers, we can lift up our communities while simultaneously securing our own futures.

Primary source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, “African Americans: College Majors and Earnings.”

Other references:

Elliott, R., Strenta, A. C., Adair, R., Matier, M., & Scott, J. (1996). The role of ethnicity in choosing and leaving science in highly selective institutions.Research in Higher Education, 37(6), 681–709.
May, G. S., & Chubin, D. E. (2003). A retrospective on undergraduate engineering success for underrepresented. Journal of Engineering Education,92(1), 27–39. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2003.tb00735.x.
Russell, M. L., & Atwater, M. M. (2005). Traveling the road to success: A discourse on persistence throughout the science pipeline with African American students at a predominantly White institution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(6), 691–715.