These Schools Are Turning Black Geeks Into Black Grads

Historically black colleges and universities continue to produce a significant percentage of STEM graduates.
Founder’s Library at Howard University, Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jason Colston/Getty Images)
Oct 11, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

As the United States struggles to compete in an increasingly tech-focused economy, President Barack Obama made adding 1 million more STEM professionals to the American labor force a national priority. Yet while black Americans make up 11 percent of the U.S. workforce, they represent just 6 percent of all workers in science- or math-based jobs.

But a solution to closing a stubborn racial gap in a critical field could be in plain sight—and it has its roots in a time when American higher education was separate and decidedly unequal.

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A new report shows historically black colleges and universities produce a majority of the nation’s degree holders in science, technology, engineering, and math, with eight schools among the top 20 institutions awarding bachelor’s degrees to black graduates from 2008 to 2012.

“Despite collectively making up only 3 percent of all postsecondary institutions, HBCUs awarded 17 percent of all STEM baccalaureate degrees earned by Black students,” according to Historically Black Colleges as Leaders in STEM, a joint survey by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the university’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.

“This achievement is emphasized in high-demand fields such as the biological, mathematical, and physical sciences, as well as engineering,” the report’s authors wrote.

That conclusion is part of a back-to-the-future legacy for universities like North Carolina A&T, Hampton, Tuskegee, and Morehouse, according to Robert T. Palmer, interim chair and associate professor at Howard University’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.

“HBCUs are known for providing a supportive, nurturing climate that helps to facilitate and maximize the talent and potential of Black students in STEM,” Palmer wrote in an email to TakePart. Unlike predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, he wrote, professors at historically black colleges “are collaborative as opposed to individualistic and competitive like the pedagogical modalities of faculty at PWIs.”

At the same time, he wrote, “STEM faculty at HBCUs involve their students in research opportunities, which help to foster interest and self-efficacy in STEM.”

Founded to educate black Americans during pre- and post-Civil War segregation, historically black colleges and universities thrived when black students had few options for higher education. Though integration allowed black students to attend predominantly white higher-ed institutions, HBCUs with top-notch engineering, medical, and science programs continued to provide a nurturing environment for students who aren’t comfortable in a majority-white environment.

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“The culture of PWIs for Black students is toxic,” Palmer wrote. “Black students in STEM are often the only minority in class and these frequently encounter racial microaggressions by students and White faculty alike. Again, the teaching practices of STEM faculty does not support the learning and academic success of black STEM students.”

That’s reflected in the Penn report, which found that black and white students interested in getting a STEM degree do so at similar rates upon entering their first year in college. Yet the outcomes aren’t the same, according to the report, which found “disparities in achievement between these two groups emerge and widen along the pathway to the completion of a STEM degree.”

In engineering, for example, black students “earned only 4.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2012 across the United States while White students earned 68.1 percent,” according to the report, which also noted similar disparities among medical- (7.3 percent for black students, 60.2 percent for whites) and physical-sciences majors (6.7 percent for black students, 66.1 percent for whites).

Yet by producing nearly 20 percent of all black graduates with STEM degrees, HBCUs have an outsize influence on much-needed diversity in science- and math-based fields. “This accomplishment is especially noteworthy,” the report says, “when taking into account that three of these HBCUs—Spelman, Morehouse, and Oakwood—enroll student populations of less than 3,000.”

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Part of the disparity in black STEM graduation rates originates in high school: As public schools have become more racially segregated, black students tend to graduate from schools that lack the same resources as white schools—including quality science and math courses, access to hands-on labs, and research opportunities or guidance counselors who can help students navigate the college application process.

When black students who attended high schools that didn’t offer physics or calculus head to college, they’re confronted with the rigors of weed-out courses. Without a supportive environment, they’re more likely to switch majors. Ideally, “we want all colleges equally vested in increasing academic outcomes among Black students in STEM. However, many colleges talk about the importance of diversifying their campus, but their talk does not translate into action,” Palmer wrote. “This is why HBCUs are so important because they succeed [in producing science and tech grads] where other institutions do not.”

At the same time, the ability of HBCUs to continue churning out STEM grads could be in danger. Alumni affected by the black-white wealth gap have less cash to give, so HBCUs, such as Howard University, lack the cushy multibillion-dollar endowments of predominantly white institutions. The extent of Howard’s financial crisis was laid bare in 2013 in a leaked letter from a trustee expressing concern that the school would still be open in 2016.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. reaffirmed the department’s financial support of HBCUs, in part because of their role in producing STEM grads. In a post on Medium, King wrote that the department provides $4 billion in funding to HBCUs.

“Investing in HBCUs is not only the right thing to do, it’s also vital for the strength of our economy,” King wrote. “Although we are making important strides toward improving STEM education, the STEM workforce in many places does not fully represent the great diversity that makes our nation strong.”

To fully close the black-white STEM gap, predominantly white institutions “need to not just talk about the importance of diversifying their campus, but also devote resources and develop an action plan to make this happen,” Palmer wrote. “They also need to monitor their action plan and course correct, when needed.”

In his view, “far too many institutions talk the talk about diversifying their campus,” Palmer wrote, “and that is it.”

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