SEAS Struggles to Attract Minority Students

The number of undergraduate concentrators in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has grown rapidly over the past three years, rising by more than 39 percent over that period.

Yet amidst this rapid growth, the school has seen its proportion of African-American and Latino students remain substantially below the proportions in the overall Harvard population.

With 415 students currently concentrating in SEAS, only 4.8 percent identify as African-American and 2.4 percent identify as Latino. Among all Harvard students, the corresponding percentages are roughly 11 percent and 10 percent, according to statistics from the Admissions office.

While SEAS makes some formal efforts to attract minority students, “we haven’t gone and tried to get internal recruitment,” says Harry R. Lewis ’68, former dean of the College and a professor of computer sciences.

Despite its struggle to attract underrepresented minority groups, SEAS has done well in drawing foreign national students and Asian and Pacific Americans. Eighty-seven foreign nationals—many from African nations—are pursuing an engineering or applied science concentration, as are 91 Asian or Pacific Americans, according to data published by SEAS.


As the school projects further expansion and nears SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray’s stated goal of capturing 600 undergraduate concentrators, the question remains as to how SEAS can attract more students from underrepresented minority groups.


The underrepresentation of African-Americans and Latinos in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a problem that is not unique to Harvard.

A recent study published by the National Academies found that African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans hold only 9 percent of American jobs in STEM-related fields, despite comprising about 29 percent of the population.

And according to data provided by the American Society for Engineering Education, African-Americans comprised, on average, about 5.2 percent of national engineering students between 2000 and 2008, while Hispanics comprised about 5.8 percent.

The corresponding averages among Harvard students in SEAS over that period are very similar—about 5.1 percent for African-Americans and 4.5 percent for Hispanics.

“This isn’t a problem for Harvard so much as this is a problem in STEM in particular,” says Computer Science Professor Margo I. Seltzer. “It’s not clear that we’re going to be able to fix this single-handedly.”

Seltzer says she thinks that by the time these students arrive at college, they may be disinclined from studying a STEM field, an obstacle for colleges that wish to draw talented minority students toward fields within engineering or applied science.

“If someone had figured out...some recipe to get more minority students [to concentrate in STEM], it would be fabulous,” Seltzer says. “But at the end of the day, students get to pick their concentrations.”



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