Move Over, DeVry…HBCUs make advances in awarding technology degrees
ALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Last January, Ogor Onuorah’s computer science education took an interesting twist when she signed up as a researcher for the Advanced Distributed Simulation Research Consortium at Florida A&M University here. The Nigerian native says the research, which focuses on the U.S. Army’s priority to develop computerized battlefield simulation systems, has stimulated her teamwork skills and exposed her to computing environments far more advanced than what she experienced in the classroom.“The research has helped broaden my horizons. It’s gotten me experience into the team building that’s necessary in industry and research,” says Onuorah, who expects to graduate at the end of the summer.Onuorah is one of several dozen undergraduate computer science majors at Florida A&M University’s computer information systems department who have experienced graduate-level research with senior faculty members at the school. Though Onuorah plans to work a few years before going to graduate school in business, she considers herself fortunate for taking advantage of an opportunity that is normally reserved at other universities for graduate students and undergraduates who intend to pursue advanced degrees in computer science.It should come as no surprise that the popularity of computers and the Internet is helping to draw increasing numbers of students, such as Onuorah and her schoolmates, into computer and information science programs at American colleges and universities. What is a surprise, is that Black colleges — for the first time in the last several years that Black Issues has run the degree-recipient numbers — are topping the list in the first- and second-place slots. In fact, for computer and information science baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans in the 1997-98 school year, historically Black colleges have claimed five of the top 10 spots. During much of the 1990s, proprietary institutions, such as the DeVry Institute of Technology, had held the distinction of being the top producers of African American computer scientists with bachelor’s degrees.But a few years of grant-snagging, corporate partnerships and sound planning have led to Black colleges being at the forefront in preparing African American students for the millennium’s IT explosion.
The Power of PartnershipsAmong a select few historically Black institutions, the spike in computer science enrollment and graduation rates has hit conspicuously at campuses, such as Florida A&M, where schools have allied their programs with major federal research, student funding programs and corporate initiatives.These programs, alliances and partnerships recognize that minority-serving institutions are playing a critical role in producing minority graduates for the nation’s information technology business sector. Currently, American businesses are experiencing acute shortages of highly skilled IT professionals. It is estimated that more than 300,000 professional IT jobs go unfilled annually due to a lack of qualified workers, according to IT experts.Labor shortages in IT fields have in recent years refocused the efforts of policy-makers and industry officials to launch new recruitment and scholarship programs for students in the sciences, engineering and information technology. Even as the Republican Congress and the Clinton administration raised the limit on skilled foreign workers allowed in the United States, they made scholarship funding available to American undergraduates to boost the number of college graduates going into IT fields.Dr. George Campbell, the outgoing president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, says a recent surge in IT education by the American colleges and universities represents a bright spot for the nation’s overall technology work force. He reports that while engineering programs and their enrollment have been declining since the mid-‘80s, information systems and computer science programs have attracted a growing cohort of students and have pushed schools to expand their facilities since the mid-1990s.Campbell says that U.S. undergraduate engineering degree recipients in 1985-86 stood at 70,000; in 1999, the figure had dwindled to 61,000. On the other hand, computer science degree recipients hit a peak of 42,195 in 1986 and then fell to 24,553 in 1994. Since then, bachelor’s degrees earned annually in computer science have begun a steady climb according to IT experts. The Computing Research Association, an association of 180 computer science and computer engineering departments at colleges and universities, reports that member schools saw 43 percent growth in computer science bachelor’s degrees earned annually between 1995-‘99 .“Technology is more visible now than it’s ever been [in American society] because of the Internet,” Campbell says.While many institutions anticipate that their enrollments in computer and information science programs will grow over the next several years, officials at institutions producing high numbers of minority IT graduates say their schools’ success in retaining those students will increasingly depend upon the financial and academic resources available to minorities. Officials at historically Black institutions say they can successfully grow their programs and retain students if outside assistance remains available to them.“We want to be able to give our students support,” says Dr. Wallace Maryland, chairman of the mathematics and computer science department at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Ala.
A Little Help from the FedsAt Grambling State University in Grambling, La., and at Florida A&M — ranked first and second respectively on this year’s computer and information science baccalaureate degree charts — faculty have aggressively built their computer science departments with federal research dollars. This strategy has enabled the departments, which had lacked sufficient infrastructures in the early 1990s, to equip programs with the latest apparatus, start master’s programs, and plug faculty members into advanced computing research initiatives. As a result of the growth, research opportunities have flowed to a high percentage of undergraduates at those institutions.Dr. Muddapu Balaram, chairman of the Grambling State University mathematics and computer science department, says outside support and sponsored research have afforded his school the means and the reputation to become a top producer of African American computer science degree recipients. Between the 1996-97 and 1997-98 academic school years, Grambling State experienced a jump from 55 computer/information science graduates to 74, an increase of 34.5 percent. That jump pushed Grambling into the No. 1 spot for the 1997-98 school year.Balaram once told Science magazine that “Our undergraduates have no trouble getting jobs, but I’d like them to pursue graduate degrees in specialized fields, which would make them even more attractive to employers.”In Balaram ‘s estimation, the quality of an undergraduate computer science program has as much basis in exposing students to research and industry as it does with traditional classroom instruction. The university’s computer science and mathematics department landed a $9.4 million grant from the U.S. Army Research Office that has helped equip the program with research equipment and new laboratories. The Army project, known as the Advanced Distributed Simulation Research Consortium, is led by Grambling State and includes three other schools, Florida A&M among them. Grambling State officials say improvements to the department that were funded through the Army project enabled the computer science program — founded in 1971 — to win accreditation in 1996 after applying for it for the first time in its history. “We cannot depend solely upon our operating budget…Outside assistance is key. Without it, there’s no way you can keep up the quality in a program,” Balaram says. Exponential GrowthCampbell says he welcomes the growth in HBCU programs because he believes accredited colleges and universities best serve long-term educational interests of students. On the heels of Grambling State, Florida A&M reported a jump of 38.5 percent in computer and information science graduates, from 52 to 72, between 1996-97 and 1997-98. The jump put the Tallahassee school in the No. 2 position as a producer of undergraduate African American computer and information science degree recipients that year.Dr. Marion Harmon, chairman of the Florida A&M computer information systems department, says that while his department has experienced gradual growth in enrollment, it has seen heavy growth in federal research awards, student scholarship funding and computing resources. From 1990 to 2000, the department went from a research budget of zero dollars to one that spends nearly $4 million annually. In 1991, the faculty had just two Ph.Ds on a staff of 13; by 2000, the department counted 13 Ph.Ds on a teaching staff of 14, according to Harmon.Its students are widely recruited by employers from around the nation that includes 3M, the Eli Lilly & Co., IBM and Dell. Harmon reports that corporate funding enables the department to hand out up to 25 scholarships a semester to top-performing students. The department had 400 undergraduate students in spring 2000 compared to 350 in 1991.Faculty members have made a concerted effort to provide undergraduates with research jobs. Harmon says 35 to 40 students a year get paid research positions with faculty members. “They are seen as prestigious positions,” Harmon says of the undergraduate research jobs. “[The jobs] give them the sense of being competitive in the academic arena.”Dr. Clement Allen, a Florida A&M assistant professor of computer science, says he has co-authored academic papers with undergraduates five times over the past five years, a feat which he describes as atypical for a faculty member at a research-oriented computer science department.“Part of the reason for high undergraduate participation in research is that we haven’t had graduate students around. Their program got started in 1996 and 1997,” he says. He adds that another critical component of their success is that the university has taken advantage of grant awards by the National Science Foundation that require faculty and undergraduate collaboration, including a foundation grant for infrastructure development at minority-serving institutions.Dr. Norman Fortenberry, division director for undergraduate education at the foundation, says the group places a high priority on encouraging undergraduate science and technology faculty members to incorporate research into the education of their students. “We believe that it’s valuable when [science and technology] programs can integrate research into the undergraduate curriculum. The reason is that it brings frontiers of knowledge to the student,” he says.Harmon attributes the department’s track record over the past decade to a core group of faculty members who became responsible for attracting research monies to the school. He says the unit has grown strong despite the fact that the department’s operating budget pays only for faculty and staff salaries, leaving the department to pay for its ongoing capital expenses.
Rounding Out the Top 10Officials at North Carolina A&T State University, and Alabama State University also report significant degree-recipient jumps in their computer science programs. School officials also say they have nurtured their programs and assisted students with National Science Foundation funding and other federal monies.Dr. Ken Williams, director of undergraduate education in the computer science department at North Carolina A&T, says many computer science departments at both HBCUs and non-HBCUs have experienced wrenching transitions while being re-established as independent departments separate from mathematics, where many originated. Williams says North Carolina’s computer science program suffered a drop in enrollment dip in the early 1990s when it separated from the math department and joined the college of engineering. “We tightened standards and went through an enrollment dip,” Williams says.He adds, the undergraduate department has gradually increased its enrollment numbers from 247 in 1994-95 to 317 in 1999-2000, noting that there’s a high demand to get into the program. “We don’t have to go out of our way to recruit,” Williams says.
Uncle Sam’s PartHBCU officials attuned to the federal government’s heightened commitment to boost the nation’s technology work force are looking to a new federal initiative for scholarship funding. Seven HBCUs, including Grambling State and Florida A&M, were among 110 institutions out of 280 chosen to participate in a computer science, engineering and mathematics scholarship program for undergraduates. Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation announced the program awards, which were launched as a $22 million annual initiative. The program was created by 1998 legislation that raised the top number of visas for foreign technical workers from 65,000 to 115,000 a year. Scholarship funding comes from part of the $500 application fee that Congress has imposed on applications for technical workers, known as H-1B visas. Participating schools are expected to award the funding as $2,500 scholarships to individuals. The scholarships are renewable for a second year. Congress is currently considering a proposal that would boost the annual scholarship fund to $30 million by raising the worker cap to 200,000 and doubling the application fee. In addition to throwing its weight behind new scholarship funding, the Clinton Administration has enlisted American corporations to help develop programs around eliminating the so-called Digital Divide. This past April, telecommunications giant MCI-WorldCom announced at the White House that it was committing $10 million over the next 10 years to establish a scholarship and internship program for minority students in high-tech areas — such as telecommunications, networking and computer engineering — to be administered by the engineering action council. Under the grant, the action council also will administer the Information Technology Association of America’s “Digital Opportunity Initiative,” another program aimed at boosting minority participation in IT fields.Despite the declining enrollments of students in engineering programs around the nation, the New York-based action council has a highly regarded record on minority engineering recruitment and scholarship fund-raising. Outgoing president Campbell says the information technology initiatives represent a golden opportunity for the organization to boost its ongoing efforts, such as the “Math is Power” public education campaign, and to apply its expertise more directly within the IT arena.“We haven’t shifted our mission. Our responsibility is to inform students about science and technology opportunities wherever they may be,” Campbell says. “Our aim is not to steer students away from any particular field, but rather to mine the minority student pool and get those students who are not in the pipeline on track to pursue [engineering and technology opportunities].”He also says it is encouraging that HBCUs have recently become the top two leading producers of African American computer scientists at the undergraduate level. He believes HBCUs can continue as leading producers of African American technology professionals despite the shrinkage in engineering programs.And to that, Fortenberry adds that HBCUs represent an important set of institutions to federal agencies seeking to boost the nation’s IT work force.Michael Arradondo is a newly graduated Florida A&M electrical engineering major, who is enrolled in the master’s program in software engineering sciences at the university. He says he originally enrolled at the historically Black institution because its president, Dr. Frederick Humphries, promised him personally that the school would meet his “high expectations” for internship and research opportunities. It turned out that while Arradondo landed an internship with the Toyota motor company in Japan through Humphries’ help, he found that the computer information systems department would eventually offer him the best research job even though he was an electrical engineering major. “I thought [the computer information systems department] would be a good place to round out my education,” Arradondo says of his current enrollment in the master’s program.
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