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Engineering Emergency

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Income inequality is in the news these days, and for good reason. Americans do not share equally in the nation's prosperity, and race all too often separates the haves from the have-nots. One big reason for the divide: gaps in educational attainment often widen gaps in wealth. That is why we cannot waver from the goal of preparing every American young person for education beyond high school.

The fate of African Americans and Latinos in engineering offers a case in point. As we mark National Engineers Week and celebrate one of the nation's most rewarding professions, there's an elephant in the room that we cannot ignore. While engineering presents an unparalleled opportunity, with the many of the nation's highest paying jobs and a broad range of career choices, African American and Latinos are least likely to reap these rewards.

A new report from Change the Equation presents this problem in stark terms. African Americans and Latinos comprise a third of the college-aged population, yet together they earn less than 16 percent of all engineering degrees and certificates. African Americans have even lost ground over the past decade.

A closer look at the data reveals another more subtle racial and ethnic divide. Most of the engineering credentials African American and Latino students earn are below the bachelor's level, whereas about two thirds of the credentials white students earn are bachelor's degrees or higher. This is a recipe for continued income inequality. Nine in ten new engineering jobs created between 2012 and 2022 will require at least a bachelor's degree, and on average they will bring annual salaries that are tens of thousands of dollars higher than engineering jobs that require less advanced degrees.

Is this a perpetuation of what Kati Haycock of the Education Trust has called an "educational caste system" in which minority students shy away from a college-prep curriculum?

It must give us pause when race and ethnicity still play such a major role in sorting students into different career pathways. If we are not careful, we are in danger of falling back into an old trap -- de facto tracking of students based on their access to challenging courses that can be a gateway to careers like engineering. The College Board found that only three in ten African American and Latino students who have the potential to succeed in Advanced Placement mathematics classes actually take those classes. Of those who do not take AP classes, half say the classes are not available, and the other half say they lack the confidence to take them. This may be the unfortunate legacy of the discredited belief that rigorous courses are not for everyone.

Critics of the college-for-all movement often argue that not every student should become an engineer anyway -- and there's more than an ounce of truth in that. But we owe it to our young people to ensure that they are prepared to select among the widest array of choices when they finish high school.

Former astronaut and executive at Aerospace and Defense company Raytheon, Robert Curbeam reflects on his own youth and pathway to engineering. "My mother taught chemistry and fueled my imagination and the many possibilities that lay ahead. I saw other kids who assumed that engineering was 'too hard' and lacked confidence to even try. Kids need mentors who motivate them to reach for the stars."

There are myriad pathways to success for our young people; that much is certain. And we do not devalue pathways to great careers that do not pass through a four-year college. But it should be students' passions, not their race or ethnicity that lead them down one pathway or another. Programs that spark young people's interest in engineering, like Engineering is Elementary, which gives elementary-aged students an introduction to engineering, can lay a fine foundation for success. Greater access to rigorous coursework in middle and high school can continue to build on this foundation.

As we mark National Engineers Week, it is important to remember that we'll have much more to celebrate in the years to come if we broaden access to underrepresented minority students and provide an opportunity for all.