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Science Careers Blog

MySciNet: September 2011

Rwanda, already recognized by the United Nations as East Africa's high-tech hub, is looking to boost its regional influence by partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to offer graduate degrees in engineering. Rwandan and university officials today announced the creation of Carnegie Mellon Rwanda, an academic program based in Kigali they hope will offer advanced engineering and management training, as well as international internships and job placement, primarily to students from Rwanda and its East African neighbors. It will be the first program to offer a graduate degree granted by a foreign university on African soil.

The program initially will offer a master of science degree in information technology, and more academic tracks will be added over time. A Ph.D. program has been proposed but that proposal isn't definite, says Pradeep K. Khosla, head of CMU's College of Engineering.

Carnegie Mellon Rwanda will aim to enroll approximately 40 students in its first semester in fall 2012, Khosla says, and then to raise that number to 150 by 2017. The program will use the same admission and academic standards as Carnegie Mellon's main campus in Pittsburgh. Khosla says the program will look to hire top-tier professors from all over the world, though he expects finding faculty could still be a big challenge.

But will Rwanda be prepared to offer jobs to a surge of new highly trained engineers? Khosla says that while that is indeed a concern, Rwanda is better prepared than most other African nations to do so. "Are they poised [to take advantage of the new engineers] today? Probably not," he says. "But are they on the right trajectory? I think so."

Rwanda is experiencing an economic boom, with sustained GDP growth of 8% annually over the past five years, numerous new telecom businesses, and an ambitious federal project to lay fiber-optic cable across much of the country. Khosla predicts that Rwanda's burgeoning wireless and mobile networks will see the most immediate benefit from the new engineers.

Khosla hopes Carnegie Mellon Rwanda will serve as an example to other universities, encouraging them to invest in degree-granting programs in Africa to help African nations build modern infrastructures. "There are a billion people [in Africa]," he says. "The world will not be better off if they're left behind."

Many studies point to a lack of representation by minorities in science and engineering fields, but the roots of that inequality are hard to trace. A new, non-peer-reviewed report finds that, contrary to the claims of some "white rights" activists, grants and scholarships are fairly evenly distributed by ratio of racial prevalence in undergraduate education. 

However, the picture changes somewhat when looking into the details. The report found that white students are significantly more likely to receive private and merit-based scholarships than are minority students, while minority students are slightly more likely to receive need-based financial aid. Since 2003, while both need-based and private scholarship funding has increased, funding for private scholarships has increased at a faster rate, suggesting that the gap between whites' and minorities' financial aid opportunities could be widening -- not good news for those looking to improve minority representation in science.

Report author Mark Kantrowitz, a stats analyst and publisher of the financial aid sites Fastweb.com and FinAid.org (which published the report), looked at data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which collects data every 4 years on how students pay for college. He found that minority students make up 38% of the total undergraduate population in the United States and account for 40% of need-based grant and scholarship funding -- reflecting the fact that minority students more frequently come from impoverished backgrounds than their white peers -- but only 24% of merit-based scholarships. White students, on the other hand, make up 62% of the total undergrad population and receive 59% of need-based financial aid and 76% of the merit-based funding.

That inequality doesn't reflect explicit racism, Kantrowitz argues, but instead the propensity for donors, who are more likely to be white, to offer scholarships for activities like golf, archery, equestrian sports, water sports, and winter sports, all of which tend to attract more white participants than minority participants. "The sponsors of rodeo scholarships aren't motivated by a desire to indirectly discriminate against minority students; they just like to promote rodeo," Kantrowitz writes. "But the net result is that private scholarships as a whole disproportionately select for Caucasian students."

When you combine students' total odds of receiving financial aid, the "race myth" -- that is, that minority students receive more than their fair share of financial aid -- falls apart, Kantrowitz concludes. In fact, white students come out slightly more likely overall to receive financial aid of some kind. To correct the imbalance, he writes, more money is needed for need-based grants and scholarships.

The funders of rodeo scholarships and others may not mean to promote institutional inequality, but it does add to the series of cumulative advantages that allow white students to enjoy more and better educational and career opportunities than minority students. An independent study for example recently pointed out that white applicants to the National Institutes of Health are 10 percentage points more likely to receive an R01 grant than their black counterparts. These and other studies suggest that policymakers need to take a hard look at the systems in place to find ways to put future minority scientists on more equal footing.

Hat tip to Insider Higher Ed.