HBCUs Are Producing Black STEM Professionals — But PWIs Aren't Matching That Energy
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HBCUs Are Producing Black STEM Professionals — But PWIs Aren't Matching That Energy

A quarter of Black graduates with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees come from Historically Black Colleges And Universities (HBCUs), the United Negro College Fund reported.

Overall, HBCUs graduate 20 percent of all Black undergraduate students, and over the years, HBCUs have invested more resources into grooming the brightest Black STEM leaders. Black and white students embark on earning STEM degrees at the same rate. Still, The Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) found that Black students studying engineering earned only 4.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2012 compared to 68.1 percent of white students. Overall, recent research shows that Black graduates account for only seven percent of STEM degrees. 

The lack of resources for Black STEM students starts at the K-12 education level. The U.S. Department of Education found that only 50 percent of public schools serving Black students in the U.S. offer calculus, and about 63 percent offer physics. While Black and Latino students make up 37 percent of the country’s high school student population, only 18 percent end up getting qualifying scores on advanced placement (AP) exams. These disparities and lack of resources lead to Black students believing they won’t be successful in STEM degree programs.

“Beyond access to courses that serve as the foundation to STEM careers, many black and Latino students have limited access to college and career readiness counselors,” Caroline Harper, a lecturer in Howard’s political science department, said in a Higher Education Today article. “As a consequence of factors beyond their control, it is especially difficult for these students to successfully navigate a career trajectory that incorporates course selection, experiential learning opportunities, extracurricular activities, and college admission requirements.”

Dating back to the origin of HBCUs, Black educators and students were forced to create a space to learn and obtain a higher education. So, it’s no surprise that HBCUs are showing up more for Black STEM students today. According to a list published by the Hundred-Seven, HBCUs, including North Carolina A&T State University (NCAT), Howard University, and Norfolk State University, are among the top producers of STEM graduates. The list examines data published by Diverse Issues in Higher Education: Top 100 Degree Producers for 2016-2019 to see how many Black students obtained bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, physical sciences, engineering, math, and other science fields.

NCAT topped the list for producing the most Black STEM graduates, and overall, 42.8 percent of bachelor degree candidates finish their programs within six years. The university manages a community of STEM majors called the STEM Theme House, which provides career exploration resources, personal development activities, and other programming for STEM students. NCAT also received an investment from Dow last year to attract more underrepresented minorities to study in STEM fields. The prominent HBCU recently shared an ambitious five-year plan to prioritize improving its retention rate, invest in workforce development, and more.

Howard manages various programs to support its STEM students, including its Karsh STEM Scholars scholarship program and summer bridge programs to help high school students transition to STEM degree programs. The HBCU is ranked #102 on U.S. News’ list for top undergraduate engineering programs. Howard partners with big tech companies like Apple and Google to create more career pathways for Black STEM graduates.

While these HBCUs are ranked high amongst each other for their work to inspire Black STEM students, they aren’t given as much recognition on a national scale compared to PWIs like Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cornell University. And sadly, Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) aren’t matching the same energy as HBCUs to get more Black STEM professionals in the workforce, and neither are companies.

USA Today reported that 70 percent of STEM professionals are white and 65 percent are men. There is a lack of acceptance that Black and other minority STEM professionals can thrive in the industry. Black workers make up 11 percent of the nation’s workforce but only account for five percent in the engineering workforce and nine percent in STEM careers overall, Pew Research Center reports.

So, what can STEM leaders do to fix these problems? Start supporting Black STEM students as early as possible in their educational journey, attract and attain Black STEM students at PWIs, make them feel just as supported as they do at HBCUs, and hire Black STEM professionals because they are just as capable of succeeding as their white counterparts. 

“HBCUs have maintained their legacies of producing African American professionals in critical professions,” Harper said in Higher Education Today. “While HBCUs do their share of producing black graduates with STEM degrees, there is a greater need for equity throughout the education pipeline and in workforce hiring practices.”