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Civil Rights Commission Report Finds That HBCUs Do a Better Job of Graduating Black STEM Majors

Since their inception, historically Black colleges and universities have served as a lifeline to higher learning for African-Americans. Indeed, they were established to provide higher education opportunities for Blacks who were excluded from mainstream universities. A report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week, titled “The Educational Effectiveness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” finds that these institutions continue to play a pivotal role in helping Blacks gain academic equality.

According to the findings, although HBCUs have an average graduation rate of 55 percent — compared to the 63 percent average graduation rate at non-HBCUs — they succeed in educating and graduating disproportionately large numbers of African-American students. The reason, the report says, is that HBCUs provide a better match for the students’ academic abilities.

“Many African-American students granted preferential admission at elite non-HBCUs, even when they score well compared to national norms, are competitively disadvantaged in developed ability relative to their school’s student body who are admitted without consideration of racial or ethnic preferences,” the report states.

The report found that HBCUs produce a disproportionately high share of African-Americans with degrees in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Students looking to study those subjects should seriously consider whether their “academic credentials match those of the typical student so that they avoid experiencing the negative effects of academic mismatch,” the report suggests. The report also recommended that researchers study the success of HBCUs so other schools can emulate their best practices.

Commission Vice-Chair Abigail Thernstrom says that although HBCUs tend to accept students who are academically less well prepared, “No students are preferentially admitted. Once they enroll at an HBCU, they can feel free to major in more difficult subjects, knowing that they will not be unprepared for the coursework.”

Thernstrom notes that a “remarkable” 40 percent of all African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees in the physical sciences and 38% who majored in math or biological sciences attended HBCUs. She says that while the evidence does not indicate that HBCUs are the best schools for Blacks across the board, “they do seem to meet a real need, serving their students well in important respects.”

In their dissent, Democratic Commissioners Michael Yaki and Arlan D. Melendez called the report “shamefully tardy,” using out-of-date data and coming four years after the 2006 briefing on which it was based. The two commissioners also objected to the mismatch finding and the recommendation based on it, saying that they were included “to trumpet the notion that African-American students may suffer unduly due to ‘mismatch’ between their academic abilities and the willingness of highly selective and competitive schools to admit them.”

Commissioner Gail Heriot countered by accusing Yaki and Melendez of looking to conceal the report’s findings that race-conscious admissions policies at traditionally White institutions often put Black STEM students at a competitive disadvantage. She noted that students who are at the middle or top of their class are more likely to stay in school and complete their degree.

“This is not a problem at HBCUs and hence explains their superior performance in this area,” she said.

The report is based on a 2006 briefing featuring a distinguished panel of experts, including Louis W. Sullivan, who chairs the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities; Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State University; Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy; Raymond C. Pierce, dean and law professor at North Carolina Central University; and Mikyong Minsun Kim, associate professor of higher education at George Washington University.

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