historians look back on the late 20th century, they will undoubtedly
recognize it as the era when high technology became a dominant force
in our economy and became an inseparable part of our daily lives. Today's
policy-makers have begun to realize that in order to prosper in this
new era, we must have a suitably educated and trained workforce. To
meet our immediate needs, Congress increased the annual allotment of
H-1B visas, which allow foreign professionals to temporarily work in
this country, from 65,000 in 1998 to 195,000 during 2001-2003. Yet an
economy reliant on imported high-tech expertise is obviously not sustainable
in the long term. We must better prepare American students for science-based
and high-technology jobsand prepare more of them.
of this problem is borne out by statistics and is particularly acute
in the field of engineering. According to Department of Education data,
just 5.1 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States
in 1998 were in engineering, down from a high of 7.7 percent in 1986.
Furthermore, while the total number of bachelor's degrees granted annually
has steadily risen, the number of engineering bachelor's degrees has
dropped from a peak of 76,225 in 1986 to 59,910 in 1998.
of gender and racial diversity among engineering undergraduates is a
growing concern, but also suggests a way of addressing the overall shortfall.
In fact, the active recruitment of women and minorities, who have traditionally
been poorly represented in engineering schools, would do much to bolster
engineering enrollments. Congress addressed the issue in 1998, establishing
the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science,
Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET). Gender and racial
diversity are typically treated together, but a closer look at the numbers
paints a more complex picture. Let's look at the underrepresentation
of minorities in engineering in the context of minority underrepresentation
in all fields of higher education. Census data for 2000 show that blacks
comprise 14.4 percent of the young adult (20-29) population, while Hispanics
account for 15.2 percent. But in 1998, blacks earned 8.3 percent of
bachelor's degrees (in all fields) and Hispanics earned just 5.6 percent.
These statistics point out that the college attendance rates of blacks
and Hispanics are well below average. But once in college, 3.1 percent
of black students pursue engineering, compared with 4.9 percent of Hispanic
students and 5.1 percent of the overall student population. In other
words, blacks earn engineering degrees at about three-fifths the average
rate, while Hispanic students obtain engineering degrees near the average
rate. Therefore, although more black undergraduates could be attracted
to engineering, simply increasing college attendance by minorities is
a powerful way of producing more minority engineers.
is considered, the problem is not enrollment, but attraction to an engineering
major. In 1998, women earned 56 percent of all bachelor's degrees but
just 18 percent of engineering degrees. Remarkably, only 1.7 percent
of bachelor's degrees awarded to women were in engineering. Women earn
engineering degrees at only one third the average rate and at just over
half the rate of black students. Comparisons with other countries refute
the notion that the poor representation of women in U.S. engineering
programs is simply due to an innate disinclination of women to pursue
engineering. In 1997, the number of engineering degrees as a percentage
of all bachelor's degrees (or the equivalent) granted to women was 8.2
percent in Mexico, 7.0 percent in South Korea, 4.6 percent in Japan,
4.3 percent in Germany, and 2.3 percent in Canada.
these findings, there are steps that the federal government can take
to address the lack of racial and gender diversity in engineering. Eliminating
racial inequity in the public school system and guaranteeing that all
K-12 children have access to schooling that prepares them for college
should increase the numbers of minority students in higher education
(and in turn, engineering departments). Specific to engineering and
science education, the CAWMSET report recommended, for example, intervention
efforts targeted at underrepresented groups at the high school and community
college levels. These would aim to identify potentially able students
and prepare them for engineering and science programs at four-year colleges
perception about the field and little encouragement to pursue technical
careers appear to keep many talented young women from considering engineering.
We must find innovative ways to improve their impression of engineering
careers during high school and provide them with positive role models.
Increasing diversity also may require structural changes in college
engineering programs. For example, the lack of female faculty has long
been identified as a contributing factor to the decisions of women not
to pursue engineering.
is essential in engineering, beyond simply addressing the human capital
needs of the tech-driven economy. William Wulf, president of the National
Academy of Engineering, has remarked that engineering is fundamentally
a creative process, and like any creative process, benefits when its
practitioners can call on a spectrum of backgrounds, viewpoints, and
experiences. Viewed in this light, diversity is essential in order to
maximize our national capacity for continued innovation and progress.
Vernon Ehlers, (R-MI), a Ph.D. physicist, is the chairman of the House
Science Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards.