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A Conversation with The President

How did North Carolina A&T become the country’s leading producer of black engineers?

A combination of nurturing and dedication to access has made the university an engineering powerhouse

If you’re black and grew up in North Carolina, it’s almost a given that you know about North Carolina A&T State University. Maybe it’s because you heard of its legendary marching band. Or maybe you learned about the Greensboro Four as part of North Carolina history.

But North Carolina A&T isn’t just a gem of the state’s higher education. It’s a national one, too, thanks to its College of Engineering, which according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine is the nation’s top overall producer of black undergraduate engineering degree holders.

There are a few factors to North Carolina A&T’s success with engineering: size, cost and atmosphere.

At 11, 177 students, North Carolina A&T has one of the larger populations for a historically black college or university (HBCU). However, it’s not nearly as large as, say, Georgia Tech University, home to nearly 27,000 students and another one of the top producers of black engineers in the country, or Ohio State University, which boasts an enrollment of nearly 65,000 students. So while North Carolina A&T feels substantial, and it’s big enough to foster academic competition, it’s not so large as to be overwhelming. There are 1,700 students in the engineering program.

It’s also fairly inexpensive. In-state tuition and fees for a full-time student this year amount to less than $5,000. Out-of-state students pay just under $11,000. According to Karl Reid, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and former vice president of research, innovation and engagement for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), cost makes an enormous difference. He cited a UNCF study that found $5,000 in scholarship assistance was enough to increase the likelihood a student will graduate by 7 percent.

“Because the tuition is low, you really have that same effect,” Reid said of North Carolina A&T. “Their [students’] unmet needs tend to be much lower because of the low net price. … If you look at the tuition, in-state tuition at A&T, it’s not as expensive as a private institution like an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] or Georgia Tech and some of the others.”

Reid has specialized in research on increasing and improving access to undergraduate education for African-American youth. During his tenure with NSBE, the country’s largest professional organization of black engineers, he’s published a guide aimed at helping HBCUs retain and graduate more science, technology, engineering and math students. NSBE awards yearly monetary prizes to the most effective college chapters that institute the organization’s best practices. Reid cited North Carolina A&T as an exemplar of such methods.

Engineering schools that have high success rates, not just in terms of graduating students but placing students in the workforce, Reid said, boast student bodies that are highly engaged with the institutions they’re attending. That means students aren’t just coming to class, taking in lectures and regurgitating what they’ve learned. They’re involved in research outside of class. Students from these programs with more seniority are likely to serve in some sort of advisory capacity to other students, and they’re involved with the faculty and school administration. In short, they’re heavily invested in the university.

Both Reid and Robin Coger, dean of North Carolina A&T’s College of Engineering, noted that establishing what philosopher Nel Noddings calls an “ethic of care” was important to getting students to heavily buy-in.

Because most HBCUs still serve an abundance of first-generation college students and students coming from households on the lower end of the income scale, it’s not in the college’s or the students’ best interest to treat them as educational customers or as “tuition-paying units,” both of which foster a sense of distance.

What works at HBCUs, and especially at North Carolina A&T, Reid said, is when “students feel like they’re part of a family. They feel like they’re part of something. There’s a sense of belonging that is very strong. In general, that’s indeed the case in some of the things that I’ve found for successful colleges. There is someone there that serves as their, like a big brother or a mamma or whatever, that just really cares for the students deeply, and the students feel that palpably, but also they feel that in their faculty.”

Coger similarly referred to what she calls the school “ecosystem.”

“For us, a student is the potential that we know every student has the capability to achieve,” Coger said. “At HBCUs, one of the values that we add for the country is the fact that we take students of all economic status, and we really see the quality of their mind and their capabilities for our field. That meant that whether you’re interacting with one of our staff, interacting with our faculty, or other students, there’s a caring about the person.”

Aside from its ecosystem, North Carolina A&T is one of three HBCU engineering programs to benefit from a new $2 million grant the Northrop Grumman Foundation awarded to NSBE in order to produce more engineers. NSBE wants to see the country producing 10,000 black engineers every year by 2025. Currently, that number sits at roughly 3,600.

The Northrop Grumman grant, awarded in March, funds 72 scholarships for students at North Carolina A&T, Howard University and Florida A&M University. Those students also get internships with the defense contractor and year-round mentoring. NSBE manages the program.

While private-sector partnerships have proven valuable, Reid would like to see more buy-in at the state and federal level. “I think that historically black colleges and universities are the nation’s gems, and they get a lot of credit for doing more with less,” Reid said. “My thinking is that if they get the greater resources to increase their capacity, they could do considerably more to contribute to the shortfall in engineering.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.