As more African Americans earn their doctorates, a look behind the numbers reveals key areas of concern.
By Kendra Hamilton
Doctoral graduation rates among African Americans have risen for the sixth consecutive year. And that’s excellent news, say analysts and administrators toiling on the front lines of the battle to increase minority graduate and professional degree production.
Indeed, nearly 16 percent of the 41,140 doctorates earned in 1998-99 went to racial and ethnic minorities — the highest percentage ever, according to the 1999 Survey of Earned Doctorates. The trend seems steady and steadily upward — in defiance of a 3.6
percent slowing — the first in 14 years — in the overall earned doctorate rate.
North Carolina’s Duke University has witnessed the increase firsthand. “This is the second year in a row that the Ph.D. production for African Americans is in double digits,” says Dr. Jacqueline Looney, associate dean for graduate student affairs and associate vice provost for academic diversity.
The university awarded 10 doctorate degrees to African Americans in 2000, a number that rose to 15 African Americans and seven Latinos in 2001. Although the numbers are small, Looney points out that those small, incremental increases are being duplicated across the nation. She attributes the increase to the fruit of many years of “unflagging efforts on the part of institutions to examine their minority admissions and enrollment patterns and devise plans to reverse the downward trends of the 1980s.”
A few hours down Interstate 85, the folks at North Carolina A&T State University are pretty pleased with their doctorate production as well. Fifteen students, nine of them African American, have earned a doctorate since 1998 — not bad when one considers that A&T only began offering doctoral degrees in its electrical, mechanical and industrial engineering departments in 1994. Even more encouraging, administrators say, is the fact that A&T has 32 doctoral candidates, 23 of them African American, in the pipeline.
“Yes, we’re small, but we have a strong research base, a strong fellowship and assistantship base, and we feel we have what it takes not just to sustain those numbers but to grow,” says Dr. Ken Murray, associate vice chancellor and dean of the graduate school.
Some observers argue, however, that 10 graduates here, 15 graduates there — even when it’s a national trend — is nothing to crow over.
The number of doctoral degrees awarded to African Americans may indeed have increased 8.6 percent from 1992-93 to 1997-98. “But 8 percent is a drop in the bucket,” argues Dr. Mark Smith, executive assistant to the president of Georgia Institute of Technology, which is the leading producer of African American engineering doctorates.
And the overall gains tend to mask some unexpected — and troubling — dips and valleys.
Stanford University, for example, was the No. 12 producer of minority doctoral degrees in last year’s Black Issues Top 100 survey, but the total number of graduates — 62 in 1997-98 — actually represented a 30.3 percent decline from the previous year’s figures.
“This is an extremely high cost-of-living area, and there’s no doubt that that’s been a factor,” notes George Dekker, associate dean for graduate policy at Stanford. “But there’s been a decline in applications and enrollments and a particularly troubling drop in the number of African Americans who actually come here (after winning admission).”
One only has to consider Stanford’s Top 100 ranking in African American doctoral production. In last year’s survey, the school’s rank was 35; this year, it has slipped to 54.
One could argue that Stanford’s case is an institution-specific blip that has few, if any,
implications for the nation. After all, rents are astronomical in the Bay area — and, despite the University of California regents’ recent vote to backpedal on their opposition to affirmative action, the state is still suffering a post-Proposition 209 black eye among minority candidates.
But conversations with observers from around the nation suggest that Stanford’s experience is a warning indicator that should not be ignored. Indeed, the causes for concern appear to go far beyond the successes and setbacks experienced by individual institutions.
“Much of the data you see suggests that there has been some slight upward movement, but even that needs to be looked at more closely,” notes Dr. Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State University. Richardson finds reason for concern in the fact that African Americans tend to cluster in certain disciplines, and the survey data as well as the experiences of other administrators appear to support his observation.
According to Black Issues survey data, the discipline that attracts the largest number of African American doctoral students is education. Indeed, in this year’s survey, the top 45 degree producers granted approximately 583 doctorates to African Americans.
The concern is that by clustering in certain disciplines, African Americans are not being represented in some key areas. “It’s no secret that science and technology are driving the economy right now,” Richardson says. But, according to this year’s survey, only 41 African Americans earned doctorates at nine institutions in biological and life sciences. By contrast, Asian Americans earned more than 300 doctorates from 57 institutions in 1999-2000.
Smith of Georgia Tech expresses similar concerns.
“If you look at the Department of Labor projections as to the shortage of technical workers, it’s clear that we need to educate — and graduate — many, many more African Americans in these areas,” he says.
Meanwhile, Dr. James Wyche, associate provost at Brown University and executive director of the Leadership Alliance, a 28-school consortium devoted to identifying and supporting minority scholars, is keeping a sharp eye on another disturbing trend.
There are “exciting” gains being made by African American and Latino women, “but the most dramatic story by far is what’s happening with African American males vs. females. The men are showing the most dramatic decreases we’ve seen in the last 25 years. And that’s very distressing,” Wyche says.
The gender gap issue is one that is troubling to many in higher education, particularly, the belief that it is leading to a pronounced imbalance between college-educated Black women and Black men, as well as altering the social dynamics of the Black community. (See Black Issues, May 10.)
Turning danger into
The problems are complex and perplexing, but the higher education community seems united in its determination to turn danger into opportunity.
Much of that opportunity is being cultivated through programs aimed at fostering the doctoral pipeline by linking universities, foundations, faculty and students in a nationwide effort to improve degree production among minorities.
The African American Professors Program at the University of South Carolina is one stop on the pipeline. Administrators there are celebrating the fact that, in their fourth year in operation, they have graduated their first three doctoral candidates.
The Leadership Alliance — offering a package of programs — including dissertation-year fellowships — since 1992, is an even larger segment of the pipeline. Ten of its scholars have graduated with a doctorate, and nine of the 10 have entered the professoriate.
And then there are the 73 participating institutions and 60 earned doctorates emerging from the Mellon Foundation’s Minority Undergraduate Fellowship program — certainly a major stop on the pipeline. With another 50 students nearing completion of their programs, “in about 2003 or ’04, we’ll be marking a pretty big occasion — the Mellon 100,” says Dr. Lydia English, program officer for the Mellon Foundation and executive director of the MMUF.
No one disputes that it is tough to get a doctorate, but it may, in fact, be getting tougher. The time it takes to earn a degree is getting longer in all fields — the median is now 10.4 years, up from 8.6 years in 1974, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). And while nearly 61 percent of those who pursue the doctorate are able to rely on institutional support in the form of assistantships, fellowships and grants to keep them afloat during that extended apprenticeship, the picture for African Americans is more complex.
African Americans are the most likely to rely on their own resources to finance pursuit of a doctorate — 48.6 percent, as compared with 44.4 percent of American Indians, 41 percent of Whites, 40 percent of Latinos and only 22.7 percent of Asian Americans. In addition, African Americans are the most likely to emerge from graduate school with debt in excess of $30,000. According to the 1999 SED, 26.5 percent of African Americans accumulate significant debt, compared with 23.8 percent of American Indians, 20.4 percent of Latinos, 14.9 percent of Whites and only 12 percent of Asian Americans.
Added to the poverty is the sheer loneliness of doctoral education — the fact that, depending on the concentration of students of color within the program, minorities can find themselves bereft of both peers and mentors.
Under those adverse conditions, it takes a special person to complete a doctorate — someone who’s able to approach the process with discipline and seriousness, someone who’s able to delay gratification in terms of finances, personal life, even family, notes Ramon Harris, director of the technology transfer project of the Executive Leadership Foundation. Hence the proliferation of programs aimed at meeting talented minority students halfway, helping them overcome all the obstacles they face on their way to a doctorate.
Dr. Monica Weathers, for example, is certain that she wouldn’t have made it to her current position — as an assistant professor of communication science and disorders at East Carolina University — without the program that assisted her: USC’s African American Professors Program.
“The program really saved my status within my doctoral program,” Weathers says.
“I was absolutely at the point where something had to give — either work or school. I felt it was going to be school, but of course I didn’t want to leave because, with students who do, their chances of coming back are really slim.”
Now, she says, she has the opportunity to influence up to 100 students with every class that she teaches, as compared to the 30-odd clients that made up her caseload. “This is absolutely my dream come true — and I’m only 28,” she says.
And the joy and pride in Weathers’ voice is the very thing that all the pipeline programs are seeking to foster.
“Overall, we have reason to feel good about what’s been happening in the 1990s,” says Dekker of Stanford. “There has been a huge national effort by foundations and universities, and there has been a payoff. We’re seeing people choosing the Ph.D. route — people who could have gone to professional school with a guaranteed high income at the end of the day and a much less grueling program.”
That is definitely worth celebrating. And while continued growth in minority doctorate production will require an even greater dedication of financial resources and administrative ingenuity, at least one observer thinks that time is on the side of the angels.
“One of the things that we have to remember is that the historiography of higher education figures significantly in this, too,” notes English.
“Blacks and Latino Americans and Native Americans weren’t even to any significant degree present in the nation’s colleges until the late 1960s, early 1970s. The number since then has grown exponentially, but it’s taken nearly 30 years to get a statistically significant number of (minorities) going on to college.”
Graduate school is the next frontier, English says. “And it’s our good fortune now to have such a group of bright undergraduates who are going to lead to a more significant representation in our faculties and on the shelves of our nation’s libraries with their scholarship.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com