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Are African Americans Surging in Computer Science?

A report released last week by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) found that first-time enrollment in science graduate programs increased last fall even as graduate enrollment across all disciplines -- including nonscientific ones -- dropped slightly. But the study's most intriguing number was hidden beneath the headlines: 33.6%. That's the reported percent increase, between the fall semesters of 2009 and 2010, in the number of black and African-American students entering math and computer science graduate programs.

"Perhaps it's that students see really good potential in entering a 2-year program and coming out with stronger skills that give them a leg up in the job market." -- Nathan Bell

Despite the substantial uptick, the number remained small: just 981. "We're looking at fewer than 1000 students total," says Nathan Bell, director of research and analysis for CGS. "It doesn't take a lot of gain numerically to result in a large percentage increase." Still, that's an extraordinary increase, he says. "It is a big jump among a small number of students." Such a large percentage change, he says, is unlikely to be random.

So where are all these new students? Bell thinks they're mostly to be found in computer science, not math, because graduate enrollments in the former field are about four times as large as those in the latter. He also believes most of the new students are probably enrolled in master's degree or certificate programs, not doctoral programs, because in the computer sciences, about 80% of all graduate students are enrolled at the master's level -- which probably holds true for black and African-American students. "I would say [the jump] is most definitely being driven by the master's programs," he says.

Stuart Zweben, a professor at Ohio State University in Columbus and the director of the Computing Research Association's annual Taulbee Survey, which tracks computer science enrollments and degrees, also points to master's degree programs as the likely home for the new minority students. The most recent Taulbee Survey, which covers the same period as the CGS study, breaks down new enrollments by race only for doctoral programs and found no increase in Ph.D.-seeking blacks and African Americans. "I could see there being certain kinds of master's program that may attract more people," Zweben says. "The programs that are more information technology–oriented rather than the more highly technical computer science–type programs tend to attract a greater fraction of African Americans."

So why are dramatically more black and African-American students suddenly choosing to enroll in graduate school in computer science? No one knows. Bell says that before the recession, both software and engineering companies would snap up computer scientists who held only a bachelor's degree, but recently, competition for jobs has become much tougher. "Perhaps it's that students see really good potential in entering a 2-year program and coming out with stronger skills that give them a leg up in the job market." But that doesn't explain, Bell acknowledges, why African Americans and blacks would do so more than other groups.

Still, Bell's comments reflect the mindset of Lorenzo Jones, who is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at Alabama A&M University, a historically black university in Normal, Alabama. "Because of the economy, a lot of people are going back to school and getting bachelor's degrees," he says. "So now there needs to be something that separates you from them. ... I thought that would be the best way to go, to go to grad school and get a master's instead of just having a bachelor's."

Leslie Milton, an African-American student pursuing her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park, says she went into computer science because she likes the work, but financial incentives persuaded her to get her doctorate. In 2008, she received her master's in computer science at Jackson State University, a historically black university in Jackson, Mississippi. She then joined the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, which offered to pay her while she completed her Ph.D., in exchange for work on one of its research projects. "I've always been interested in solving problems," she says. "Math and computer science was one way I could do that for a living."

Leslie Milton (CREDIT: Courtesy of Leslie Milton)

Milton hasn't noticed an uptick in the number of black and African-American grad students at her school. But the increase might not be locally obvious. "An increase of one student per program could cause the national results we saw, and that could easily not be noticed, " CGS's Bell says.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and committee chair for a recent National Academy of Sciences report on promoting minority scientists and engineers through the education and workforce pipelines, finds the CGS result heartening but says it will take more time before a legitimate trend emerges. "It's always encouraging when you see an increase in the numbers, but they need to be seen in perspective," he says. "What will be important to monitor will be their performance. What will be most encouraging will be if we see that kind of increase in the number of students earning degrees."

If these students do show up as degree recipients in a couple of years, it will validate the efforts that several national agencies have made to foster minority participation in grad school, Hrabowski says. Directors of programs like the National Science Foundation's Bridge to the Doctorate program and the Alliance for the Advancement of African-American Researchers in Computing have long hoped to see this kind of result, he notes.

"It's what we hope to see happening as a result of those grants -- that we'd see greater interest and more students moving on to grad school," Hrabowski says. "Now we need to look to see if those students succeed and what it takes for them to succeed."

Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.