Are African-Americans surging in computer science?

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By Michael Price

A report released last week by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) found that first-time enrollment in science graduate programs increased last fall even as graduate enrollment across all disciplines — including nonscientific ones — dropped slightly. But the study’s most intriguing number was hidden beneath the headlines: 33.6%. That’s the reported percent increase, between the fall semesters of 2009 and 2010, in the number of black and African-American students entering math and computer science graduate programs.

Despite the substantial uptick, the number remained small: just 981. “We’re looking at fewer than 1000 students total,” says Nathan Bell, director of research and analysis for CGS. “It doesn’t take a lot of gain numerically to result in a large percentage increase.” Still, that’s an extraordinary increase, he says. “It is a big jump among a small number of students.” Such a large percentage change, he says, is unlikely to be random.

So where are all these new students? Bell thinks they’re mostly to be found in computer science, not math, because graduate enrollments in the former field are about four times as large as those in the latter. He also believes most of the new students are probably enrolled in master’s degree or certificate programs, not doctoral programs, because in the computer sciences, about 80% of all graduate students are enrolled at the master’s level — which probably holds true for black and African-American students. “I would say [the jump] is most definitely being driven by the master’s programs,” he says.

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