Over the past year, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and RTI International have engaged in a study of Black and Hispanic individuals who have achieved PhD degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Only 3.8% of people who earned these doctoral degrees from 2010–20 were Black Americans. The debt load of those who did is disproportionately high.
Throughout the report, “Exploring the Educational Experiences of Black and Hispanic PhDs in STEM,” it is clear that Black, and to some extent Hispanic, students have very different experiences than their white and Asian counterparts. The differences begin with the types of institutions they attend for their undergraduate educations and continue with the institutions at which they do their doctoral studies.
The U.S. population is 12% Black and 19% Hispanic, but in 2021 only 5% of PhDs in STEM fields were earned by Black individuals and 8% by Hispanic individuals. Understanding that there is a national imperative to diversify the STEM workforce, the Sloan Foundation found it essential to identify possible barriers so that they could be addressed.
Four research questions were developed. These explore the characteristics of bachelor’s degree-granting institutions attended by STEM PhD recipients, the characteristics of doctoral-degree institutions attended by STEM PhD recipients, the postsecondary educational pathways and experiences of STEM PhDs and how they vary by recipients’ race and ethnicity, and the sources of support received and debt incurred.
Sixty-six percent of white students and 65% of Asian students earned their bachelor’s degrees at institutions that offered doctoral degrees as compared to 56% of Black students. Black students were more likely to graduate from institutions at which the highest degree offered was a master’s degree. Half of the top 20 bachelor’s degrees of Black STEM PhD recipients from 2010–20 were earned at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Eleven of top 20 schools for Hispanic STEM PhD recipients were Hispanic Serving Institutions.
“If you look at Black students who get STEM PhDs, so many of them start at HBCUs. It goes back to the support that they have,” said Dr. Erin Dunlop Velez, director of educational research at RTI International and one of the report’s authors.
The differential persists in graduate schools. Black students are more likely to earn a master’s degree before pursuing doctoral studies, which adds cost and time to PhD completion. When they do pursue doctoral studies, they are more likely to attend a moderate research activity institution, whereas white students pursue their PhDs at the highest research activity institutions. Smaller schools offer less in the way of assistantships or fellowships that lessen the debt load.
“If you’re going to a public flagship, you’re probably getting a tuition waiver and some kind of stipend because you’re teaching or doing research,” said Velez. “The differences in debt are hugely problematic.”
A startling fact is the percentage of Black STEM PhDs earned at for-profit institutions (24%), thus increasing student debt. Due to the debt, they take longer to compete their degrees. Also, graduates of such schools are not likely to receive offers for positions in academia.
“If you get your PhD at a for-profit, it’s very hard to transition into academia,” said Velez. “A lot of times you work for the government or a non-profit. Those are hugely important jobs, but in terms of encouraging more young people to get PhDs in STEM, we need more Black and brown professors.”
Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa, program director at the Sloan Foundation who commissioned the report and co-wrote an op-ed about it with Velez for Diverse, said research on undergraduate degrees earned at for-profit institutions indicates that these PhD recipients may struggle to pay off their student debt.
Velez hopes that faculty, administrators and policy makers at graduate schools read the report, recognize the barriers that exist for Black and Hispanic STEM PhD students and make an effort to remove those barriers.
“More policies, mentorship and programs need to be put in place both at the undergraduate and graduate levels to encourage more Black and Hispanic students to enter STEM PhD programs, and once they are there, to better support them.” Velez said.
Espinosa wants the scientific community to pay attention to these findings. “Even those working on the ground on college campuses to extend access and promote persistence and completion of degrees in STEM may not have realized how troubling things are when it comes to the disparities between the racial and ethnic groups that the report uncovers,” she said. “We’re losing even more talent than what is immediately available in these statistics.
“We need to better resource the institutions where these students are going—the non-profit institutions that are not top tier R1s,” she added. “Those institutions don’t receive as much research funding from the federal government. … They’re not in turn able to fund their students.”
The Sloan Foundation has launched a portfolio of grants that are creating and widening pathways from Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to doctoral degree programs, which tend to be at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Espinosa said this exposes students at MSIs to research opportunities and mentoring.
“Many of the projects involve faculty at the doctoral-granting institutions…to work with faculty at, let’s say, an HBCU on curriculum development,” said Espinosa. “They’re sending resources to the HBCU in the form of hardware and other scientific materials they can use in their teaching. … The PWI is learning from the HBCU on what it means to take a talent development mindset. There’s true partnership and collaboration. We’re also investing in doctoral programs at MSIs.”