Success Factors for Minorities in Engineering: Implications for Community College Programs

Irving Pressley McPhail
Learning Abstracts

After a productive career in community college leadership as President at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and founding Chancellor at Community College of Baltimore County, I moved on to lead the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. (NACME). NACME is the nation’s largest private provider of scholarships for underrepresented minorities (URMs)—African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians/Alaska Natives—in engineering education.

The NACME scholarship and university strategy has proven to be an eminently successful paradigm for undergraduate minority engineering education for more than four decades. NACME Scholars maintain an unprecedented 79.1 percent six-year retention-to-graduation rate, compared to 39.3 percent for non-NACME Scholar URMs, and 60.3 percent for non-minority students (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering [NACME], 2016). NACME Scholars earn an average GPA of 3.35. Each year, the NACME Partner Institutions account for more than 30 percent of the total number of bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded to African American, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native students. One-third of NACME Scholars are first-generation college students. Poised for leadership in the engineering workforce, 53 percent of NACME Scholars who participated in internship and co-op experiences in 2015 at 113 different global technology companies said they would go back to work at the company based on their experience (Fleming & McPhail, 2019).

The Community College Pathway to Engineering

The knowledge base on the community college pathway to engineering is receiving increased attention. Adelman (1998) observed early on that 20 percent of all engineering degree recipients began their careers at community colleges, earning a minimum of 10 credits from these institutions. Data from the 2008 National Survey of Recent College Graduates (NSRCG) documented that 44.4 percent of recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees and 25 percent with master’s degrees in engineering attended community college (NSF, 2012). Tsapogas (2007) analyzed the 2006 NSRCG data and found that 64 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native only, 50 percent of Black only, and 55 percent of Hispanic science and engineering bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients in 2004 and 2005 attended community college.

Two comprehensive discussions of the community college pathway to engineering should be noted. Mattis and Sislin (2005) described the changing role of community colleges in engineering education, identified exemplary practices and partnerships between community colleges and four-year universities, and recommended critical areas for further study. I (McPhail, 2015) reviewed recent research and policy studies and identified promising and best practices for facilitating the movement of African American students from the community college to successful completion of a bachelor’s degree in engineering. This critical analysis sounded the alarm on the New American Dilemma, the relative absence of African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos in STEM study and careers, and the requirement to reverse this situation to better compete globally (Slaughter, 2008). The analysis also looked at contemporary challenges and exemplary approaches in pre-engineering and recruitment, student support services and retention, innovations in teaching and learning, the special case of developmental mathematics, and transfer and articulation policies, and suggested areas for further research, practice, and policy.

These studies indicate that effective articulation agreements, together with quality institutional support, are imperative if we are going to increase the number of URM students pursuing engineering degrees to completion.

With generous funding from the Motorola Foundation, NACME (2010) compared data for 1,688 NACME Scholars—including 355 community college transfers—at 29 NACME Partner Institutions and 17 NACME Affiliate Universities. These data were supplemented with interviews with key informants at three NACME Partner Universities about the reasons for transfer and the ways that institutions could increase the success of transfer students. The data revealed the following:

  1. Transfer NACME Scholars’ overall GPAs were higher than those of traditional NACME Scholars who began their engineering education as freshman at the university.
  2. Transfer students were more likely to be retained as of the study date.
  3. Slight variations across racial/ethnic groups require additional analysis.

Among the reasons given for why NACME Scholars chose to begin their engineering education at the community college were lack of financial aid for a four-year college, family circumstances (desire to be close to family), affordability (opportunity to live with family and save on room and board), and smaller first- and second-year classes than at major research universities. Community college transfers represented 21 percent of all NACME Scholars, a metric consistent with national data.

The Current Study

Against the backdrop of the national imperative to increase the representation of URMs in engineering education and careers, I determined that NACME’s university partners and like-minded institutions and organizations could benefit from a more precise knowledge of what best facilitates the successful retention and graduation of URMs in undergraduate engineering education. A fortuitous meeting with distinguished research psychologist and scholar in minority student retention, Jacqueline Fleming, launched our combined effort. With support from a competitive grant awarded to NACME by the National Science Foundation, we embarked on a three-year, three-pronged study designed to identify factors enhancing the success of URM engineering students (Fleming & McPhail, 2019).

The first step was to conduct institutional analyses of academic performance and retention to graduation data in NACME member institutions to assess the academic context in which the target students operated, as well as to compare the findings with other reports. The question for the study was, Are these rates the same or different in NACME member institutions? This study of institutional success factors for minorities was designed not to be a study of the best or most prestigious engineering schools with the best students as judged by entering standardized test scores, but of effective schools that do the most with what they have. The concern was with what factors appear to distinguish some of the most effective engineering schools.

The second step was to get to know the minority engineering students well enough to construct profiles of them and to design a study of their engineering education experiences. To do this, focus groups were conducted, and minisurveys were administered during the interviews for additional analysis.

The third step was to conduct an online survey designed to assess the program participation and adjustment factors that facilitate the success of minority engineering students. These factors were examined as a function of GPA, matriculation in more effective schools, and classification; that is, the value-added of surviving to the senior years of study.

Key Findings

We drew the following conclusions from this three-phase study of success factors for minorities in engineering:

  1. In engineering, ability is paramount. In this case, ability was measured by standardized test scores. No matter how one stands on testing, these scores were important to student success in most cases. That minorities have lower test scores in the institutional study, as well as the student survey, is a problem that should be addressed. Most of the analyses conducted in the institutional and survey studies controlled for the influence of test scores, so that the findings of differences are true if student abilities are roughly equal.
  2. The ability to manage the academic environment seems to take a close second to ability in achieving success. Such managerial abilities include the meta-analytic organization of information, the protection of concentration, and the assessment of faculty, as well as effort and time management
  3. Minority Engineering Program (MEP) participation occupies a central position in minority student success. It appears to enable good minority student adjustment, better than that observed for non-minority students. The programs may also offer reasonable substitutes for any lack of faculty attention or guidance.
  4. Attending a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) constitutes a unique pathway to engineering success. There was some evidence that MEP programming in Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) offers an alternative to what an HBCU provides for its students; i.e., better academic adjustment. This conclusion is consistent with a great deal of prior research, as well as research on students in STEM disciplines. That research demonstrates that the HBCU difference reveals itself to be better academic vs. social integration, and strong student programming informed by retention theory. Regrettably, it should be noted that Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) do not appear to serve this general function for Hispanic students, although the institutional analyses showed that the University of Texas, El Paso, an HSI, was uniquely effective in retaining its engineering students.
  5. Again, and again, the study provides evidence that hands-on exposure to the work of engineering—as in problem- or project-based courses, research participation, and particularly industry internships—constitutes the primary success factor (Fleming & McPhail, 2019, p. 254).

Crosswalk With Community College Pathway to Engineering

Aligning what we know about success factors for minorities in engineering in four-year institutions with the growing knowledge base about best practices in community college engineering programs offers an exciting opportunity to grow the number of URMs who begin their engineering study in the community college and successfully transfer and graduate with bachelor’s degrees in engineering. The principal conclusions from the current three-phase study are in sync with my call for bold action and academic strategy in community college STEM programs:

  1. Introduce STEM education and career options at an early age to URM students by providing access to academic support programs, after-school coaching for ACT/PSAT preparation, and STEM-integrated curricula to increase the ability of high school graduates to enter the college arena prepared for the rigor of engineering study.
  2. Provide research-based academic support services, financial support, and trained and competent faculty.
  3. Transform instructional practices at the community college to incorporate learning-centered, social constructivist pedagogy in science and mathematics.
  4. Introduce contextualized instructional models that infuse the developmental mathematics curriculum with real-world engineering problems and scenarios (see NACME, 2011).
  5. Implement exemplary practices in transfer and articulation in engineering education (McPhail, 2015, p. 330).

Given the reality that the number and diversity of college-age students will grow dramatically over the next decade, and that many of these students will elect to begin their postsecondary education at a community college, now is the time to disseminate and implement evidence-based interventions to facilitate the pathway from community college to engineering careers for these students (McPhail, 2013). Success Factors for Minorities in Engineering (Fleming & McPhail, 2019) makes an important contribution to bridging research, practice, and policy across multiple sectors, and promoting knowledge-sharing activities to achieve NACME’s vision of an engineering workforce that looks like America.

In our quest to confront the New American dilemma, the time for doing—for acting—is now. As Toni Cade Bambara reminds us in The Salt Eaters (1980), “The dream is real, my friends. The failure to make it work is the unreality.”


Adelman, C. (1998). Women and men of the engineering path: A model for analysis of undergraduate careers. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Bambara, T. C. (1980). The salt eaters. New York: Random House.

Fleming, J., & McPhail, I. P. (2019). Success factors for minorities in engineering. New York and London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Mattis, M. C., & Sislin, J. (2005). (Eds.). Enhancing the community college pathway to engineering careers. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

McPhail, I. P. (2013, March 4). Point of view: Confronting the “new” American dilemma: A national imperative for the community college. Community College Week, 4.

McPhail, I. P. (2015). Enhancing the community college pathway to engineering careers for African American students: A critical review of promising and best practices. In J. B. Slaughter, Y. Tao, and W. Pearson, Jr. (Eds.), Changing the face of engineering: The African American experience (pp. 305-334). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. (2010). Community college transfers and engineering bachelor’s degree programs. NACME Research and Policy Brief 1(1), 1-2.

National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. (2011). Beyond the dream: From developmental mathematics to engineering careers. NACME Research and Policy Brief, 1(5), 1-2.

National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. (2016). About NACME: Engineering a workforce that looks like America. Retrieved from

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2012). Characteristics of recent science and engineering graduates: 2008. Retrieved from

Slaughter, J. B. (2008). The “new” American dilemma. In L. M. Frehill, N. M. Di Fabio, and S. T. Hill (Eds.), Confronting the “new” American dilemma: Underrepresented minorities in engineering: A data-based look at diversity. White Plains, NY: NACME.

Tsapogas, J. (2007, October). The role of community colleges in the education of recent science and engineering graduates. Handout presented at STEM Conference, Montgomery College, MD.

This article is based on Success Factors for Minorities in Engineering, by J. Fleming and I. P. McPhail. The book may be ordered as follows:

Telephone: Toll Free 1.800.634.7064 (M-F: 8 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.)

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Irving Pressley McPhail.

Irving Pressley McPhail is Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at The McPhail Group LLC in Amawalk, New York.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.