Understanding the Lack of Minority Representation in Graduate Programs in Computer Science and Information Technology: A Focus Group Study of Student Perceptions

Article excerpt


There is a growing concern over the under representation of women and minorities in the natural sciences and engineering fields, including computer science. There is a large body of research material which documents this fact. The focus of this research was to look beyond undergraduate education and to investigate the lack of representation of minorities in graduate and post graduate education in the field of computer science/information technology. Some of the relevant research is included here in the following section.

Grandy (1994) conducted a study among college seniors who registered to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test and who were majoring in natural sciences, mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering (NSME.) A stratified sample of 1,651 such college students was collected. The goals of the survey were to identify some of the factors that may lead NSME majors to change fields for graduate school, analyze differences among ethnic groups remaining in NSME, and analyze differences between male and female NSME majors who plan to remain in NSME. The research mainly focused on gender and ethnic differences in NSME majors planning graduate study in their fields. Results showed that the decision to leave NSME was uncorrelated with gender, race, or GRE scores. Detailed analysis of gender and ethnic differences among NSME majors planning to continue in their fields showed small to moderate differences on many dimensions. There were gender and ethnic differences in salary expectations, importance on making a contribution to society, and preferences for various job activities.

The under representation of women and minorities in information technology (IT) professions is also well documented (National Science Foundation [NSF], 2000). In fact, recent statistics show that the IT workforce is comprised of less than 30 percent female and less than five percent minority professionals (Council of Higher Education Accreditation [CHEA], 2000). The Computing Research Association survey on graduate students shows that, between 1993-2003, African American enrollment in Ph.D. programs in computer science/computer engineering remained 1% or 2% of total Ph.D. enrollment in these majors (Vegso, 2005). Several recent research studies have been done to determine the reasons why such an employment gap exists despite the relatively high demand and attractive salaries for IT workers (Houston-Brown, 2002; Baylor, 2003), and many more studies have documented the underlying reasons for a similar gap that exists in science, math, and engineering professions in general (Landis, 1985; Cohoon, 1999; Thom, Pickering, & Thompson, 2002; and Armstrong & Thompson, 2003). In a recent publication, Cohoon, & Aspray (2006) reviewed the existing literature for the causes of the gender gap in the information technology field and possible strategies to rectify this problem. These studies point to the well documented "digital divide," which limits minorities' access to computing technology; inadequate K-12 preparation, especially in math and science; and a critical lack of counseling and mentoring as key reasons for lack of recruitment and retention of minority students in IT majors.

Gates, Teller, Bernat & Cabrera (1999) studied the affinity research group model which provides students with opportunities to learn, use, and integrate the knowledge and skills that are required for research with the knowledge and skills that are required for cooperative work. Membership in affinity groups is dynamic, i.e., old members graduate and new members join in; and students come to the groups with different levels of knowledge and skills. Because of this, an annual orientation is needed for new members to facilitate their understanding of the philosophy and goals of the affinity model, understanding of the research goals of the projects to which they are assigned, learning of the basis of the cooperative paradigm, and awareness of group expectations. …