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HBCUs Still Putting Blacks in STEM

– Science & Enterprise special feature –

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, one of the mathematicians portrayed in the film Hidden Figures, was a graduate of West Virginia State College, an historically Black institution. 1983 photo. (NASA, Wikimedia Commons)

Clinton Parks

10 July 2020. The book and eponymous movie “Hidden Figures” shed light on the African-American female mathematicians at NASA and its predecessor, NACA, during the 1940s and 1950s. These women, called the West Area (or Colored) Computers, received their degrees from historically black colleges and universities. The local HBCU, then known as Hampton Institute, had a special part in training the computers with its Engineering for Women training class.

This was no anomaly, but just one example of the role HBCUs have played in preparing Blacks for professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM. HBCUs were almost the only place Blacks could receive a postsecondary education in the United States before the passing of civil rights legislation that ended oppressive racial segregation laws in the mid-1960s. Numbering just 100 in all, historically black schools account for only about two percent of the nation’s more than 4,500 degree-granting institutions of higher learning. HBCUs are a diverse set of institutions, said Ivory Toldson, president and chief executive of the QEM Network, a nonprofit that helps minority-serving institutions secure federal funding. HBCUs include four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, public and private institutions, as well as a few medical and law schools.

In the past, Blacks who earned their bachelor’s degree at HBCUs tended to earn STEM doctorates at higher rates than those who attended traditionally white institutions, according to a 2010 Urban Institute meta-analysis report. But is that still the case? The short answer is yes. HBCUs still hand out more bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields to Blacks than traditionally white institutions. But HBCUs no longer produce the rates of STEM bachelors they once did, and federal support for these programs has waned, recently.

HBCUs have bolstered the self-confidence necessary for many scientists who were taught there to endure and thrive in their fields. That affirmation can be as simple as seeing another Black person teaching a STEM class, said Jeffrey Handy, an assistant professor of biology at his alma mater of Morehouse. “A Black chemistry professor would more likely believe in the abilities of a young Black student,” he says. While about three percent of the faculty across all disciplines at non-HBCUs are Black, about 55 percent of faculty at HBCUs are Black, Rankins says, citing NSF data from 2006.

But the relationship between HBCU faculty and students is more than superficial. Howard University math professor Abdul-Aziz Yakubu has found weaker connections between faculty and students when he has taught or visited non-HBCUs, including where he received his graduate degree — North Carolina State University. Teaching at Howard “is a little more personal,” said Yakubu, who is from Ghana. Students at HBCUs see their professors as mentors, Yakubu said, and it’s a relationship he doesn’t see when teaching at historically white schools.

HBCUs losing Black students

Despite the positives achieved by HBCUs in science and engineering, the rates of STEM graduates at HBCUs have fallen “quite dramatically” in recent years, said Willie Pearson, a professor of sociology in the School of History, Technology, and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He looks at STEM studies at HBCUs. And he said the percentage of science bachelor’s degrees awarded to Blacks from HBCUs has been flat or declining, depending on the area of study, for the last several years. This is because more Blacks are attending traditionally white schools. In 1977, more than 35 percent of Blacks who graduated that year with bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering received them from HBCUs; that figure was slightly less than 17 percent in 2014, according to the National Science Foundation. And while more than 45 percent of Blacks with science and engineering doctorates had received their bachelor’s degrees from HBCUs by the late 1970s that number had fallen to just more than 30 percent by 2006, according to the NSF.

With greater educational options available to Blacks, HBCUs lost a huge proportion of Black students. In 2014, HBCUs accounted for eight percent of Blacks enrolled at postsecondary schools, down from 18 percent in 1976, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As the percentage of Black students attending HBCUs has dropped, non-HBCU institutions have not made up the gap in Black students studying STEM tracks, Pearson said.

But while the percentages have dropped, the overall numbers of Black college graduates with STEM degrees have increased, said Claudia Rankins, program director of HBCU-UP and CREST, National Science Foundation programs designed to assist minority-serving institutions. HBCUs awarded 2,086 STEM degrees to black students in 1990 and 8,877 STEM degrees to Black students in 2014, she said. In 2014, Black students at HBCUs received STEM degrees at twice the rate as Black students at non-HBCUs, Rankins writes, citing National Center for Education Statistics figures. That same year, HBCUs handed out 34 STEM degrees for every 1,000 Black students enrolled, more than the 33 STEM degrees awarded to white students per 1,000 white students enrolled at all institutions in 2014, according to that data.

Because of the small numbers of HBCUs — remember, there are only 100 — the efforts or issues of just a few schools can have outsize effects on the number of Blacks receiving STEM degrees from these institutions. This is the case with undergraduate engineering enrollment at Howard University, Pearson said. While the Washington school is still the school that graduates the most Black students who go on to receive doctorates in engineering, for example, there has been a huge decline with its engineering bachelor’s recipients, he said. Howard would not provide FiveThirtyEight with its engineering student numbers or comment on the issue.

But it’s important to note that Howard’s overall STEM numbers have not fallen, Rankins said. “I don’t really think it’s an alarming trend,” she said, noting there are only 14 HBCUs with accredited engineering departments. This is one instance in which traditionally white schools appear to have picked up the slack, Rankins said, with engineering schools such as the University of Virginia, Ohio State University and Georgia Tech (to name a few) having successfully recruited and steered Black students toward engineering degrees. National Science Foundation statistics show that the number of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to Blacks from HBCUs dropped from 847 in 1981 to 691 in 2014. Meanwhile, the number of Blacks earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering from traditionally white schools rose from 2,449 to 3,599 during that same period.

Yet still some HBCU success stories

Some HBCUs have had marked success, and all-women’s Spelman College is one of them. A large number of its students graduate with STEM degrees, Pearson said. It has consistently remained among the top schools where Blacks with STEM doctorates got their bachelor’s degrees, according to the NSF, despite enrolling just more than 2,000 students. Cohorts of African-American women in science and engineering are the norm there, Toldson said. The school has spent resources on making itself “one-stop shop” for undergraduate STEM students, Spelman math professor Viveka Borum said, making lab experiences widely available on campus and partnering with nearby schools to further such opportunities.

Borum saw few African-American faculty in STEM or other Black STEM majors at non-HBCU Wayne State University in Detroit, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Spelman provides the expectation of that Black women are able to achieve and excel as scientists and engineers. The school makes Black women visible in these fields, whether faculty, alumni or undergraduates. In that environment, students don’t wonder if they or those who look like them are capable of becoming scientists. HBCUs have been critical in developing these support systems, Toldson said. “It’s been a really supportive department,” Borum said. “I see why people rarely leaves HBCUs.”

Follow the funding

Government — federal and state — dollars play a big role in maintaining student enrollment and STEM graduations at HBCUs, Rankins, Pearson and Toldson said.

The Title III Part B Program is a huge part of allocated federal funding for HBCUs and a reliable marker for how presidential administrations are funding them, Toldson said. The program, funded by the Department of Education, provides grants to “accredited, legally authorized” HBCUs to “establish or strengthen their physical plants, financial management, academic resources, and endowment-building capacity.” Title III has a STEM mandate, calling for the “development of academic instruction in disciplines in which Black Americans are underrepresented.”

 In 2015, HBCUs received $425 million, or about 1.1 percent, of the $38 billion in federal funding obligated to postsecondary schools for science and engineering research and development despite making up 2 percent of those schools, according to NCSES data.

But Title III isn’t the only source of funding for HBCU STEM researchers. Other federal agencies also fund STEM education at HBCUs, includes but isn’t limited to NIH, Defense, NASA, NOAA, Transportation, and Agriculture. NSF is the major funding agency for STEM outside of the medical fields, which is largely funded by the National Institutes of Health.

NSF funds STEM research and education grants. Investigators from HBCUs compete with those from other institutions of higher education, Rankins said. However, the HBCU-UP program, one of more than 300 NSF programs, only funds faculty from HBCUs. In 2015, NSF support for HBCUs amounted to $68 million, Rankins said, including HBCU-UP. The program has a $34 million annual budget, almost all of which goes to its constituent HBCUs, Rankins said. However, she said, that averages out to only $340,000 a school. HBCU-UP is part of NSF’s Education and Human Resources program. Under President Barack Obama, that program saw an increase in funding and strong congressional support, she said. Between 2005 to 2015, that program got a bump of about $19 million.

NSF’s budget for HBCU-targeted science and engineering appropriations is almost $68 million, Rankins said, and includes HBCU-UP, a federal program specific to supporting HBCUs in STEM. The organization has a $34 million annual budget, almost all of which goes to its constituent HBCUs, Rankins said. However, she said, that averages out to only $340,000 a school. HBCU-UP is part of NSF’s Education and Human Resources department. Under President Barack Obama, that department saw an increase in funding and strong congressional support, she said. Between 2005 to 2015, that department got a bump of about $19 million.

As some HBCUs have struggled with plummeting enrollments, maintaining accreditation, and even keeping their doors open, a new administration has taken office. Donald Trump got only eight percent of the African-American vote in the 2016 election, according to CNN exit polling. By contrast, Obama received 93 percent of the Black vote in 2012. Yet several HBCU presidents converged on the Oval Office in February to witness President Trump signing an executive order heralding support for HBCUs. The order seeks $25 billion for historically black schools. This would far exceed the amount of funding these schools received during Obama’s administration.

The money set aside for HBCUs in Trump’s budget outline released March 16, however, falls far short of that number, amounting to $492 million in funding for minority-serving institutions. (This is just an initial wish list; Congress determines federal funding.) Obama’s 2017 budget outline was clearer. Obama asked for $85 million in mandatory funding and $244.7 million in discretionary Title III funding to HBCUs, QEM head Toldson wrote in a March 2 opinion piece in The New York Times.

The table below shows Title III Part B appropriations for HBCUs under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009 and Barack Obama from 2009 to 2016. Figures are provided by the Department of Education.

Federal Support for HBCUs, 2001 – 2016

Year      Title III, Part B Appropriation
2016      $323,914,000
2015      $306,369,000
2014      $302,663,000
2013      $296,720,564
2012      $312,980,301
2011      $236,991,068
2010      $350,624,000
2009      $323,095,000
2008      $323,095,000
2007      $238,095,000
2006      $238,095,000
2005      $238,576,000
2004      $275,863,744
2003      $214,015,000
2002      $206,000,000
2001      $185,000,000

Ultimately, the story of HBCUs, regarding STEM or otherwise, is about its alumni and professors. Frederick Gregory, a neuroscientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and a graduate of Atlanta’s Morehouse College, only applied to HBCUs, seeking the support Black colleges reportedly provided. At the all-men’s school in Atlanta, he remembers easy relationships with his professors and instructors that propelled the first-generation college student to get his Ph.D. at Harvard. Ben Watson, a high school and community college math teacher, also attended Morehouse because of its excellent reputation. The self-described introvert remembers a professor buying him glasses after noticing him squinting at the blackboard. And that sort of supportive environment gave him the tools to excel in a subject he found challenging but also rewarding.

But for all the positive effects HBCUs have for Blacks in STEM, neither party, Toldson says, have given HBCUs the funding they need, especially public HBCUs. Rankins agrees, saying HBCUs are often given just enough to survive, but not enough to catch up to the financial standing of historically white institutions. Often, public HBCUs have also had to contend with conservative politicians at the state level, Toldson says, who prefer to funnel money into one flagship school at the expense of other state schools. Yet, he believes: “Good HBCU leaders can effectively work with both parties.”

While some HBCUs are tiny schools with small enrollments that just offer a few science bachelor’s degrees and others are research-intensive schools with thousands of students, each face different challenges. Yet one persists: their relevance in a post-segregation society. “I am baffled as to why we question the relevance of institutions at which the enrollment of both Black and non-Black students has increased over the last 40 years, despite the fact that the number of institutions has decreased by almost 10 percent since 1976 and despite numerous economic challenges,” Rankins wrote in an email.

The sometimes negative perception of HBCUs can be challenging when high school academic advisers make statements like: “You’re too smart to go to an HBCU,” Toldson said.

“The role of HBCUs remains important in STEM,” Pearson said. “Unfortunately, the contributions are declining.” Some HBCU supporters fear diminishing contributions will result in diminishing funds and even fewer schools. Rankins is more optimistic than Pearson, however. “I think the institutions are too well-grounded in their communities to disappear.”

Editor’s note: Clinton Parks is a Washington, DC-based science writer and novelist, published in AAAS, the Society for Neuroscience, Undark and the American Physical Society, among others. From November 2003 through April 2006, Parks served as staff writer of AAAS’ Minority Scientists Network, the online network for current and prospective minority scientists. From October 2006 through May 2015, he served as a staff writer and web producer for the trade publication SpaceNews.

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