Commentary

HBCUs: an Unheralded Role in STEM Majors and a Model for Other Colleges

February 25, 2016

This month Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released a study showing that African-American students are underrepresented in the college majors that tend to lead to higher-income occupations and overrepresented in majors that tend to lead to lower salaries. The study received widespread attention, garnering write-ups in numerous national media outlets.

Overlooked in this discussion is that the numbers would be even more lopsided were it not for the vital work done by historically black colleges and universities in educating African-Americans in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM fields, and other majors that can propel students to higher-paying careers. With questions swirling about the sustainability of HBCUs, the study highlights the continuing relevance of black colleges’ educational purpose.

The Georgetown researchers found that while African-Americans make up 12 percent of the national population, they represent low percentages of "high paying" undergraduate majors, such as pharmaceutical science (6 percent), general engineering (8 percent), and computer science (8 percent); conversely, those students account for disproportionately high percentages of "low paying" majors such as "human services and community organization" (20 percent) and social work (19 percent).

As explanations for the pattern, the study briefly mentions "personal choice" and notes that African-Americans are concentrated in open-access institutions where choices among majors are limited, but additional reasons are not hard to imagine.

African-American college students continue to be more likely than white students to come from low-income backgrounds, more likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and more likely to arrive at college with less academic preparation. Once on a campus, African-American students often lack adequate academic support and encounter a dearth of faculty role models of the same race. Many African-American students face discrimination and feel excluded from the white cultural norms that dominate campuses, problems that erupted in last fall’s student-protest movement.

HBCUs are valuable both as a pipeline of African-American graduates ready to enter higher-income and leadership professions, and for what they can teach predominantly white institutions about supporting black students.
All those factors surely go some way toward explaining why African-American students gravitate away from STEM majors, where what the researchers Marybeth Gasman and Thai-Huy Nguyen have called a "survival of the fittest" mentality prevails.

The "low paying" jobs identified in Georgetown’s study are admirable, and no doubt many African-American students are drawn to them out of a passion for the work, making a volitional decision to pursue majors that are personally rewarding and socially conscious. But, as the study points out, one’s college major can have a lifelong impact on earnings, and a tendency for black students to avoid majors in the sciences and business could contribute to a lack of economic stability in African-American families and communities.

The continuing obstacles to college access, support, and encouragement faced by many African-American students make it likely that at least some of them would pursue "high paying" majors if predominantly white colleges and universities did more to provide clearer pathways.

Those pathways are already provided at HBCUs. Numerous analyses show that such colleges are more than pulling their weight in preparing African-American students for STEM careers. For example, Gasman (head of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions) and Nguyen (who teaches at Seattle University’s College of Education) reported in 2014 that, from 2006 to 2010, HBCUs accounted for 10 out of the top 20 colleges in awarding bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields to African-American students. In 2011 HBCUs enrolled 11 percent of African-American students over all, yet in 2010 they awarded more than 19 percent of science and engineering degrees to black students and nearly 33 percent of math and statistics degrees, even though the colleges are just 3 percent of higher-education institutions.

Gasman and Nguyen ascribe that success to numerous factors, including that HBCUs foster an atmosphere that "celebrates participation and accomplishment," and emphasize faculty and peer guidance. Outside of STEM fields, the Postsecondary National Policy Institute reports that black colleges confer 21 percent of all business and management degrees earned by African-American students.

The benefit to students at HBCUs goes beyond the simple metric of their major. A recent Gallup-Purdue University survey found that graduates of such colleges report more-positive college experiences and outcomes than African-American graduates of other colleges. More students in the survey reported feeling that HBCUs had "prepared them well for life outside of college" and had provided them with faculty support. Students at black colleges that have a meaningful academic-support network and a cultural connection to their campuses are also more likely to venture out of their comfort zone in choosing a major, the survey found.

Despite those contributions by HBCUs to the achievements of African-American students, not to mention the nationwide effort to produce more skilled workers who can compete in the global economy, black colleges are frequently seen as a struggling sector. And no wonder. They are chronically underfunded and often criticized for their low graduation rates, which are largely attributable to their mission of teaching historically underserved populations. A few have closed or are in danger of closing.

But the Georgetown study is a timely reminder of their continuing importance. HBCUs are valuable both as a pipeline of African-American graduates ready to enter higher-income and leadership professions, and for what they can teach predominantly white institutions about supporting black students. Such students should have the opportunity and resources to pursue the major of their choice, including the "high paying" ones highlighted in Georgetown’s study, regardless of where they go to college.

To help them reach their goals, predominantly white institutions should emulate HBCU programs that have demonstrated success in helping students navigate majors for which their pre-college preparation may have been lacking. At the same time, higher-education policy makers, researchers, and commentators should recognize the value of HBCUs in their own right as institutions providing affordable higher-education options, supporting African-American students in STEM fields and similar courses of study, and working to close the racial wage gap.

Ken Leichter is a master’s-degree candidate in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate assistant at the Wharton School there.