AI technology that can not recognize dark skin tones (MIT). Physicians who use racial biases against Black patients (Nature). The uprooting of Black communities to create highway infrastructure (PBS News) These are just a few examples of racism in the supposedly objective fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Black people often face strife when interacting with these pillars of American society. One reason for this is these fields’ stark diversity problems. Only 5.4% of doctors identify as Black (US News). Just 4% of Facebook employees are Black, and only 6% are Latinx (Statista).
A study published in Educational Researcher found that up to 40% of Black first-year students who declare STEM majors ultimately switch majors. 26% of Black STEM majors drop out without earning a degree (Inside Higher Ed). To get more Black people in these fields, we have to find ways to further support them during the undergraduate experience. One big solution would be to bolster STEM programs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
The first HBCUs were founded right after the Civil War. They were necessary for Black people to pursue higher education when almost all colleges and universities were white-only (HBCU First). Before Howard Medical School opened in 1867, it was effectively impossible for Black people to study medicine and get formal training as doctors (Duke). HBCUs have a long and prestigious history. Today, many are playing an outsized role in addressing inequalities in STEM.
22% of Black students who have an undergraduate degree got it from an HBCU, though HBCUs compose just 3% of colleges (TMCF). 25% of Black undergraduates obtain their STEM degrees from HBCUs (The Atlantic), as do 50% of Black doctors (and 80% of Black judges).
Black STEM graduates are likely to attend HBCUs because students at these universities don’t face the sort of racism many students endure at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). This racism can fuel stress that can lead to poorer mental health outcomes than their white counterparts (Inside Higher Ed). This often translates to academic difficulties. Professors can also advise Black students to stay away from certain fields. Black students report advisors discouraging them from applying to medical programs (Med Page Today). In the words of Jasmine Edmondson, “HBCUs remain a refuge for students to delve further into their cultural heritage and excel academically without fear of discrimination” (LSU).
Despite the value of HBCUs, state governments have underfunded them for decades (CBS News). This past May of 2021, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a $577 million settlement for historical underfunding of Maryland HBCUs such as Morgan State and Bowie State University (NBC Washington).
HBCUs often have significantly lower rankings on college and university ranking lists compared to PWIs. According to Malcolm Gladwell, these lower rankings can stem from the emphasis of college rankings based on graduation rates of the students (The Grio), though “graduation rates are not a function of the quality of education at the school. It is actually a function of the income levels of the students” (The Grio). College rankings also consider endowment size (Albany). Public HBCUs have 20% of the endowment of public non-HBCUs, and private HBCUs have 27% of the endowment of private non-HBCUs (ACE)
Despite underfunding and lack of attention, many HBCUs work to support students in STEM fields. Xavier University, a Louisiana-based HBCU, produces the most number of Black medical students each year (NY Times). They have created a pre-medicine advising curriculum that takes into account the unique social and sometimes financial factors that can affect a young Black student’s goal of entering the medical field.
One student who wished to remain anonymous told ARD, “at my PWI we had like one-two staff dedicated to providing support for minorities… I must say that at HBCUs, I have seen pre-meds have more layers. They have layers where the med school does do more pipeline activities and they have a multi-tier support system when it comes to their premed journey.
In order to have more Black people in STEM, we need more Black STEM graduates. Supporting and spotlighting these programs at HBCUs is going to be integral for diversifying the STEM world.
HBCUs account for only 3% of all universities, yet 25% of all Black undergraduates with a STEM degree obtained it from an HBCU, including 50% of all Black doctors.
HBCUs have historically been underfunded by state and local governments.
Supporting HBCU stem programs is one of the most direct ways to increase the presence of Black folks in STEM fields.