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Vast Industry Opportunities STEM from Historically Black Colleges and Universities

by: Harlem Times Staff
January 27, 2015

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were initially developed in the 1800s as land-grant colleges to afford underrepresented African Americans their rights to inexpensive, yet high-quality, education, in the face of a prejudicial old guard that has dominated the American high education system.

Since then, HBCUs transformed into a crucial incubation chamber for STEM professionals within the African American community: according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, HBCUs graduate 50 percent more students in the STEM fields for every 1000 enrolled students than for-profit and predominantly white institutions do combined.

All told, HBCUs are responsible for the development of nearly one-third of all black scientists and engineers in America, and the numbers are even starker for black females attending college. While HBCUs account for only 17 percent of all enrolled African American females, those institutions produce a whopping 31 percent of all black, female STEM graduates nationwide.

So although HBCUs account for under 20 percent of African American college enrollment, but produce well over a quarter of all black STEM graduates. In a time when the viability of the HBCU system has come into question by critics, hard data underscores the importance of these oft forgotten institutes of higher education. New research shows that while many African Americans branch out beyond HBCUs when seeking out higher education, historically black colleges offer consistent opportunities for under-served and disadvantaged populations, like women and first-generation college students, to earn their degree in a STEM field.

In September, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) released a report entitled, “The Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities as Pathway Providers: Institutional Pathways to the STEM PhD Among Black Students,” which found that HBCUs have “a unique advantage” to support the nationwide development of STEM programs that increase participation rates from African Americans in both the academic and professional environments.

This is because HBCUs are not only institutions of choice for undergraduate African American STEM majors, but also for post-graduate work. The AIR report found that 72 percent of individuals who receive STEM doctorates from HBCUs also attended a historically black institution for their undergraduate studies.

“Degrees from historically black institutions are most common among black PhD. recipients who are women and first-generation college students—groups that are underrepresented in STEM academia and the broader workforce,” said Dr. Rachel Upton, AIR researcher and co author of the report. “With that advantage, HBCUs could lead the nation’s efforts to get more black individuals in these fields.”

And it’s not only academics who realize the potential of untapped talent enrolled in HBCUs, many companies in the science and engineering fields are now focused on inspiring more students to pursue degrees and careers in STEM related fields.

“We actively try to work with HBCUs to go out and recruit in [STEM] areas,” said Olabisi Boyle, the Director of Engineering and Planning for Chrysler Group said in an interview. “It’s where we go to get alternative persons and diversity candidates.”

She noted that Howard University (Washington D.C.), and Hampton University (Hampton, VA) were always favorites for head hunters, then continued to named a slew of HBCUs across the country that Chrysler continuously recruited and supported. Due to its commitment to building up STEM programs nationwide, Chrysler was recognized by U.S. Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine as the top supporter of HBCUs for three consecutive years.

“We are consistently finding many organizations that are doing their fair share in building the STEM pipeline,” said Tyrone Taborn, editor in chief of USBE&IT magazine. “Black students and professionals want to know what these organizations are doing for their colleges because they want to work for employers that are committed to their community.”

Ultimately, that is the crowning achievement of HBCUs; in the face of societal injustice and apathy, HBCUs are a set of institutions that are constant in the promotion and progress of young African Americans. Yet while both noble and worthy, the HBCU system is still fragile.

Supporters of HBCUs have consistently butted heads with the Obama Administration over the past six years due to what they view as a lackluster effort by the president to support institutions integral to the success and well-being of not only the African American community, but the nation at large.

Rather than take a firm stance in support of HBCUs, Obama outsourced policy making to mid and lower-level officials in his administration. That move led a group of officials to “fix a glitch in the system” that led to a $300 million funding cut for HBCUs over a two year period, by not only reducing grants to HBCUs but also restricting funds to potential students that applied for the Parent PLUS Loan Program.

The AIR study noted that although HBCUs produce the most black STEM degree holders, those graduates are more likely to be strapped with financial burdens than graduates of predominantly white institutions. Again, this can be traced back to lower endowments at HBCUs, which means there are less graduate funding opportunities and tuition support programs than at their counterparts.

“Our concern is that [President Obama] could leave office without having affected the necessary change in how the state and federal governments view, promote, support and fund HBCUs,” a group of retired HBCU presidents and chancellors wrote in a letter to the president. “That would be, in our opinion, a tragedy of untold proportion.”

However, the government does have a vested interest in the STEM programs of historically black institutions and takes its role seriously. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) realized the need to help HBCUs train and develop high quality graduates in order to fulfill the booming STEM industry, so in 2000, it set up the HBCU-UP program. The aim of the program is to make “dramatic improvements in the preparation and success of underrepresented minority students” in order to give them an opportunity to “participate in STEM graduate programs and the workforce.”

Stakeholders from all walks, whether student, employer, or institution, realize the importance that the HBCU system plays in the development of black STEM professionals nationwide. When combined with the projected exponential increase in STEM jobs to be created in the upcoming decade, HBCUs and their STEM graduates will undoubtedly thrive for years to come.

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“Degrees from historically black institutions are most common among black PhD. recipients who are women and first-generation college students—groups that are underrepresented in STEM academia and the broader workforce,” said Dr. Rachel Upton

“With that advantage, HBCUs could lead the nation’s efforts to get more black individuals in these fields.”   Dr, Rachel Upton

“Our concern is that [President Obama] could leave office without having affected the necessary change in how the state and federal governments view, promote, support and fund HBCUs. That would be, in our opinion, a tragedy of untold proportion.” wrote retired HBCU presidents and chancellors wrote in a letter to the president.

“We actively try to work with HBCUs to go out and recruit in [STEM] areas. It’s where we go to get alternative persons and diversity candidates.”  said Olabisi Boyle, the Director of Engineering and Planning for Chrysler Group

“We are consistently finding many organizations that are doing their fair share in building the STEM pipeline,” said Tyrone Taborn, editor in chief of USBE&IT magazine.

“Black students and professionals want to know what these organizations are doing for their colleges because they want to work for employers that are committed to their community.” said Tyrone Taborn, editor in chief of USBE&IT magazine.

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