Who Produces Black Ph.D.'s?

September 2, 2008

Black students have their choice of college in a way that was not nearly as true decades ago, a fact borne out by the numbers: In 2006, one in five African American bachelor's degree recipients earned their diplomas from historically black colleges and universities, compared to well over a third in 1977.

But even as they are educating a smaller proportion of black undergraduates, historically black colleges and universities are graduating a growing share of black Americans who go on to earn Ph.D.'s in science and engineering, a new report from the National Science Foundation reveals. The results suggest that the institutions are doing something different -- and important -- for the undergraduates they enroll.

The report takes a historical look at the undergraduate institutions attended by African Americans who received doctorates in science and engineering fields over the last 30 years. In some ways, the data show the ebb and flow of the centrality of historically black institutions in the education of black Americans. In the late 1970s, when more than 35 percent of black undergraduates attended historically black institutions, more than 40 percent of black doctorate recipients in science and engineering had earned their bachelor's degrees from those institutions.

But as many predominantly white institutions opened their doors to black students and intensified their recruitment of the best of them through the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of African American science Ph.D. recipients who received their undergraduate degrees from historically black colleges fell into the low 20s, as seen in the table below.

Interestingly, though, the pattern has shifted in recent years. Even as the proportion of all black undergraduates who attend historically black colleges and universities has continued to decline, the proportion of black doctorate recipients (U.S. citizens and permanent residents) who earned degrees at those institutions has climbed steadily this decade, the report shows:

Undergraduate Institutions of Black Ph.D. Recipients in STEM Fields, 1986-2006

Year All institutions Number Educated at HBCU's % Educated at HBCU's
1986 356 89 25.0
1987 350 99 28.3
1988 389 103 26.5
1989 396 104 26.3
1990 405 85 21.0
1991 503 119 23.7
1992 442 109 24.7
1993 526 121 23.0
1994 544 120 22.1
1995 610 165 27.0
1996 620 151 24.4
1997 668 145 21.7
1998 708 175 24.7
1999 773 207 26.8
2000 784 192 24.5
2001 767 204 26.6
2002 761 196 25.8
2003 742 195 26.3
2004 857 242 28.2
2005 828 239 28.9
2006 866 254 29.3

Historically black institutions produced more black Ph.D. recipients than any other type of institution in 2006. Next in line were intensive research universities with 240 Ph. D. recipients, other doctorate-granting universities with 117, master's granting colleges with 96, and baccalaureate colleges with 61.

Black colleges as a group were even more likely to have produced Ph.D. recipients when the numbers are examined per capita based on their enrollments. In 2006, alumni of historically black institutions received 10.1 doctorates per 1,000 bachelor's degrees they awarded to black students, compared to 7.9 percent for non-black colleges, as seen in the table below:

Number of Black Ph.D. Recipients Produced Per 1,000 Black Bachelor's Degrees Awarded 9 Years Earlier

Year Historically Black Colleges Non-Historically Black Colleges
1986 4.2 6.2
1988 5.0 6.0
1990 4.4 6.5
1994 7.0 9.0
1996 9.1 10.2
1998 11.0 10.9
1999 12.7 11.1
2000 10.7 10.7
2001 10.3 9.3
2002 9.0 9.1
2003 8.3 7.7
2004 10.1 8.6
2005 9.4 8.0
2006 10.1 7.9

Ansley Abraham, director of the State Doctoral Scholars Program at the Southern Regional Education Board, which aims to produce minority faculty members, said the data "make clear the importance of historically black colleges and universities in producing doctoral recipients." Neither the data nor the NSF report offer any insights into " why a disproportionately high number [of graduates of HBCU's] are going on to seek advanced degrees," Abraham said, but he offered a couple of possible explanations.

First, he surmised that historically black colleges, many of which tend to lean less heavily on standardized test scores in admitting students, "may be on to something in the criteria they use to select kids that is not born out of how they did on the SATs and ACTs -- picking up on drive or something else" that the institutions then nurture once the students are on their campuses, Abraham said. He also said that because graduates of historically black colleges are emerging from their institutions "without the baggage that goes with being a minority on a majority campus," they "perhaps have a little bit more energy and drive to go on for more education. That's just a theory," Abraham said.

Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF: United Negro College Fund, attributed the strong showing of historically black institutions to their traditional emphasis on encouraging their graduates to pursue post-baccalaureate education and to an increasing emphasis at many institutions on science and technology. "Our institutions have really emphasized the undergraduate degree as the launching pad, and generally the culture says to go to graduate and professional school," Lomax said.

And at certain institutions, such as Xavier University of Louisiana and Spelman College, students are strongly encouraged toward scientific disciplines and involved in undergraduate research that prepares them for the sort of work they will do in graduate school, said Lomax. "There is a kind of intentionality and purposefulness here."

Lomax said the performance of historically black colleges and universities in producing black doctorate recipients is all the more noteworthy because the institutions receive "disproportionately fewer dollars [in federal research support] than comparable institutions do."

"When you look at the NSF dollars that go to HBCU's, they don't reflect the disproportionate production of graduates in the fields the NSF cares most about," Lomax said. "It would nice to see the money reflect the kinds of disproportionately strong production that is coming out of these typically underresourced institutions."

The following table compares two lists of the top 50 institutions whose African American graduates went on to receive doctorates between 1997 and 2006. On the left are the institutions in pure numbers; the right side shows the number of black Ph.D. recipients that institutions produced for every 1,000 black recipients of bachelor's degrees nine years earlier.

Institutional Production of Black Bachelor's Degree Recipients Who Earned Ph.D. Recipients Producers of Black Ph.D. Recipients, Normalized for Undergraduate Black Enrollments
  No. of Black Science Ph.D.s Produced, 1997-2006 Institution No. of Black Science Ph.D.'s Produced, 1997-2006 No. Produced per 1,000 Black Bachelor's Degree Graduates 9 Years Earlier
Howard University 224 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 58 112.6
Spelman College 150 Swarthmore College 17 85.9
Hampton University 135 Princeton University 47 70.7
Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University 100 Harvard University 73 64.2
Morehouse College 99 Amherst College 15 55.6
North Carolina A&T State University 89 Brown University 50 54.0
Southern University A&M College at Baton Rouge 88 Yale University 48 52.9
Xavier University of Louisiana 79 Wellesley College 18 52.3
Harvard University 73 Carnegie Mellon University 14 50.4
University of Maryland at College Park 72 University of Chicago 14 49.8
Tuskegee University 71 Oberlin College 22 48.7
Morgan State University 64 Vanderbilt University 21 47.3
University of California Berkeley 64 University of California Santa Cruz 19 45.6
Jackson State University 63 Colgate University 11 44.4
University of Virginia, main campus 63 Spelman College 150 41.8
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor 62 Stanford University 50 41.2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 58 Vassar College 16 41.0
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 54 Columbia University in the City of New York 32 39.5
North Carolina State University at Raleigh 51 Case Western Reserve University 13 39.4
Brown University 50 Wesleyan University 20 38.9
Stanford University 50 Rice University 11 38.3
Yale University 48 University of Pennsylvania 43 38.1
Princeton University 47 Johns Hopkins University 15 37.5
Cornell University, all campuses 46 Duke University 34 36.8
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 45 Williams College 12 35.9
Clark Atlanta University 43 Tougaloo College 41 35.9
Prairie View A&M University 43 Wake Forest University 15 35.8
University of California Los Angeles 43 Cornell University, all campuses 46 34.4
University of Pennsylvania 43 University of California Irvine 21 33.8
Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University 41 Tulane University 25 33.7
Rutgers University New Brunswick 41 George Washington University 19 30.8
Tougaloo College 41 College of William and Mary 19 30.5
University of South Carolina at Columbia 41 Fisk University 37 30.0
CUNY City College 40 Dartmouth College 17 29.7
Norfolk State University 40 Washington University 19 28.4
North Carolina Central University 40 Emory University 25 27.1
Wayne State University 38 Andrews University 14 26.5
Fisk University 37 Iowa State University 17 25.2
Temple University 37 University of California Riverside 12 25.1
Florida State University 36 Georgia Institute of Technology, main campus 32 24.7
Michigan State University 35 Miami University, all campuses 14 24.4
Tennessee State University 35 Morehouse College 99 24.4
Duke University 34 University of Michigan at Ann Arbor 62 24.3
Grambling State University 34 Xavier University of Louisiana 79 24.1
University of Texas at Austin 34 University of California Berkeley 64 24.0
CUNY Hunter College 33 University of California Davis 26 24.0
Columbia University in the City of New York 32 University of Virginia, main campus 63 23.9
Georgia Institute of Technology, main campus 32 University of Wisconsin Madison 17 22.6
Pennsylvania State University, main campus 32 University of Miami 24 22.1
University of Maryland Baltimore County 32 University of Maryland Baltimore County 32 21.6

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