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.


STEM and Social Justice: Applying an Engineering Lens to Social Change

Written by:

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
Executive Director
National Society of Black Engineers
Emily Williams
Associate Director
Social Justice Initiative, University of Illinois at Chicago

Calls for justice for Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner gave rise to Black Lives Matter, a national movement that in one succinct phrase accentuates the value of all African Americans, and particularly those who are most marginalized in communities of color. On college campuses in Missouri, New Haven and Cambridge, diverse student protesters are raising legitimate questions about the racial climate of their local citadels of learning and progressive thought. And in largely African-American Flint, Mich., the neglect by state and federal officials of an environmental disaster may have irreparable repercussions for a generation of young people.

Tragically, these stories aren’t new. One can swap out the contemporary flash-points and replace them with names of historical significance such as Montgomery, Jackson or Watts. In truth, the African-American experience is born out of struggle. Author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls Black Lives Matter a rebirth of the black liberation movement of the ’60s, which itself encapsulated 400 years of striving for equality and justice in America.

Social change is in the air, and it’s being waged with a disciplined approach to effecting justice, social justice.
Defining Social Justice
Social justice is the pursuit of a world in which all people have the opportunity to live decently and free of harm. It is born of the collective understanding that injustice and inequality are endemic to the systems and structures that make up our society. Our world is divided by race, socioeconomic status and other identity markers. Many who advocate for social justice realize that justice will not come for many communities through the criminal justice system or traditional institutions.

Envisioning social justice, we ask ourselves what the world would look like if everyone had access to the resources they needed, if black lives mattered, if violence were not used as a tactic and if the environment were not damaged for profit. Activists, community leaders and everyday people are imagining this world as they fight to end these injustices. It will require creativity, strategy and collective action to create this world. In short, it will require the minds of engineers.

NSBE Is Rooted in Social Justice
The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) is no stranger to social change. The Society was founded in 1975 by six Purdue engineering students who invited other black students from across the country to transform the face of engineering in higher education. In the ensuing 41 years, NSBE — now one of the largest student-led organizations based in the United States — has not only helped graduate tens of thousands of engineers, its 31,000 student and professional members around the globe are at the leading edge of a new cultural movement to transform education and increase participation of blacks in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). NSBE’s vision is to make engineering a mainstream word in homes and communities of color, and its primary strategic goal is to nearly triple the annual number of African-American engineering bachelor’s degree recipients in the U.S. to 10,000 by 2025. This vision and goal will not only have economic ramifications, they are bold statements of social change.

Engineers in Action
By their nature and training, engineers are problem solvers. Their disciplined, creative approach to finding solutions is useful in areas such as heat transfer and structural dynamics but also more broadly.

When news that the community of Flint, Michigan, was being poisoned by lead, bacteria and other harmful substances in its drinking water, the NSBE National Executive Board, in partnership with NSBE Professionals and collegiate chapters in Michigan, launched a national campaign to provide bottled water, water filters and water test kits to the people. More strategically, members of NSBE’s Environmental Engineering Special Interest Group, in collaboration with the American Water Works Association, are lending their technical expertise by educating Flint citizens about water filtration safety and helping to engineer a sustainable solution to the water crisis.

Addressing acute needs such as these while working to find long-term solutions is how we can apply an engineering lens to a social justice problem. And NSBE’s activism in Flint also exemplifies what it means to “positively impact the community,” which is a large part of NSBE’s mission.

In the next installment of this blog, we suggest some ways for engineers to redress social injustice.

NSBE Launches Campaign to Graduate 10,000 Black Engineers

Annual Goal for the U.S. Is Set for 2025

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Only 19 percent of black 4th graders in the U.S. and 13 percent of the nation’s black 8th graders were proficient in math in 2015, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 5.5 percent of black 8th graders in the U.S. in 2005 completed calculus five years later, and a mere 1.1 percent of the nation’s black college freshmen enrolled in engineering programs in 2010, according to a recent analysis conducted by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). And then there’s this distressing fact from the American Society for Engineering Education: the percentage of African Americans among U.S. engineering bachelor’s degree recipients has been declining for more than a decade and was only 3.5 percent in 2014.

But the core mission of NSBE, founded 40 years ago, is to increase the number of black engineers. So the Society has decided to do something about the effect of these disparaging statistics on black youth and on the nation’s need for talent in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The Society has targeted an ambitious goal: to have the U.S. produce 10,000 African-American bachelor’s degree recipients in engineering annually, by 2025, up from the current number of 3,620. NSBE will launch its “Be 1 of 10,000” campaign in October 2015, with an outreach to African-American 7th graders and others across the country. NSBE’s goal is to have 150,000 7th grade students envision themselves as engineers and pledge to achieve academic excellence in subjects such as algebra, chemistry and physics, which are at the base of an engineering education. The Society will then provide online and other resources to help those students achieve their goals.

“NSBE’s leadership is totally committed to this campaign,” says NSBE National Chair Neville Green, a senior in chemical engineering at the City University of New York. “As students and professionals in STEM, we know the importance of driving this change, to ensure the future of our communities.”

“Be 1 of 10,000” is reaching out to 7th graders because they are scheduled to graduate from four-year colleges in 2025. However, continued success in meeting NSBE’s strategic goals will require the Society to increase the STEM proficiency of students who are even closer to the start of the “pipeline” to engineering careers. In addition to the online resources being provided, plans to meet these milestones are expansion of the Society’s Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) program for students in grades 3 through 8, and encouraging more public school districts to offer calculus in high school.

NSBE’s leadership is totally committed to this campaign…as students and professionals in STEM, we know the importance of driving this change, to ensure the future of our communities.

Providing more academic support to African-American engineering students in college is also part of the plan. This support will include tutoring and mentoring by older student and professional members of NSBE, collaborative study sessions, training in test-taking and other measures. We will also seek support to boost the institutional capacity of colleges of engineering to recruit, educate and graduate more black engineering students.

“10K looks like a big number, until we divide it among our 227 collegiate chapters across the U.S.,” says Tolu Oyelowo, NSBE’s national academic excellence chair, who is a senior in biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University. “If each chapter graduates an additional three members by 2025, we will have met our goal.”

The campaign is designed to mobilize the Society’s 31,000-plus members and others as well. Those who partner with NSBE will help bring about a positive cultural change that will create a mind shift in students of color across the nation. The hope is that these children will begin to see themselves as engineers instead of the athletes and entertainers they most often view as role models.

“Graduating 10,000 black engineers per year will generate benefits that extend far beyond our organization,” says Karl W. Reid, Ed.D., NSBE executive director. “By harnessing the STEM talent of greater numbers of African Americans, we are expanding the corps of problem solvers and innovators in service to the nation.”

NSBE’s “Be 1 of 10,000” campaign is sponsored by Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. Media sponsors of the campaign include WGBH Boston and National Journal “The Next America.”

To join the campaign or for more information, visit Graduate10K.NSBE.org. Or follow the campaign on social media at #Be1of10K. Through these and other media, NSBE hopes to make engineering a household word in the African-American community and help more black students envision themselves as successful engineers.

Founded in 1975, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) is one of the largest student-governed organizations based in the United States. With more than 31,000 members and more than 300 chapters in the U.S. and abroad, NSBE supports and promotes the aspirations of collegiate and pre-collegiate students and technical professionals in engineering and technology. NSBE’s mission is “to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.” For more information, visit www.nsbe.org.

WGBH Boston is America’s preeminent public broadcaster and the largest producer of PBS content for TV and the Web, includingMasterpiece, Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, Nova, American Experience, Arthur, Curious George, and more than a dozen other primetime, lifestyle and children’s series. WGBH’s television channels include WGBH 2, WGBX 44, and the digital channels World and Create. WGBH TV productions focus on the region’s diverse community include Greater BostonBasic Black and High School Quiz Show. WGBH Radio serves listeners across New England with 89.7 WGBH, Boston’s Local

NPR®; 99.5 WCRB Classical Radio Boston; and WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR® Station. WGBH also is a major source of programs for public radio (among them, PRI’s The World®), a leader in educational multimedia (including PBS LearningMedia™, providing the nation’s educators with free, curriculum-based digital content), and a pioneer in technologies and services that make media accessible to deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired audiences. WGBH has been recognized with hundreds of honors: Emmys, Peabodys, duPont-Columbia Awards and Oscars. Find more information at wgbh.org.