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

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ABSTRACT

This paper is an effort to delineate factors impacting lack of representation of minority students at the graduate level education in information technology fields: computer science and computer information systems. The research was conducted in three Virginia institutions: Hampton University (HU), Norfolk State University (NSU), and Virginia State University (VSU). The paper examined basic factors impeding interest of undergraduate computer science and information technology students in graduate education. Based on our findings a few strategies are suggested which could possibly lead to higher interest, hence, better recruitment and retention of minority students in graduate programs in these fields.

The research shows that students' lack of interest in graduate education was due to four basic factors. These factors were 1: lack of information about graduate school and admission process to the graduate programs, 2: perceived value of graduate education, 3: financial considerations and 4: perceived educational preparedness. It was also found that undergraduate school supervisors (teachers, advisors, and administrators), family and friends have a direct impact on the students' intention and interest in graduate education. Furthermore, students' interest level decreases as they move from underclassman status to upperclassman status. Based on these findings, a few basic recruitment strategies are proposed.

Keywords: Graduate Minority Students, Graduate Computer Science Education, Recruitment of Graduate Minority Students, Focus Group Study, Computer Science Students in HBCUs.

INTRODUCTION AND LITERATURE REVIEW

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; Thorn, Pickering, & Thompson, 2002; and Armstrong & Thompson, 2003). …