More Doctorates in the House
Experts explain what’s working in postgraduate programs at HBCUs and TWIs
WASHINGTON — The upward trend for African American postgraduate degree attainment remains constant. From 1992-93 through 1997-98, African American master’s degree attainment rose 8.6 percent overall and 9.7 percent at historically Black colleges and universities. Degree attainment for African Americans at the professional level rose 5.4 percent overall — 7.7 percent at HBCUs. And at the doctoral level, the overall increase among Blacks mirrors the master’s level at 8.6 percent.
African Americans are increasingly opting for HBCUs as the institutions to attend for doctorate completion. Between 1992-93 and 1997-98, HBCUs increased their number of doctoral graduates by 15.2 percent. The two institutions listed among the top 15 African American doctorate producers with the largest undisputed one-year percentage increase are Jackson State University in Mississippi (ranked 15th with an increase of 144 percent) and Clark Atlanta University (ranked fifth with an increase of 95.5 percent). Additionally, South Carolina State, ranked 35th in 1997-98, increased its production of Black doctorates by 1,200 percent.
“Given that most of us have not been in the Ph.D. business for a long, long time,” HBCUs are doing remarkably well, says Dr. William H. Boone, associate provost and interim of dean of graduate study at Clark Atlanta University. “[Black colleges] offer a uniqueness that is not found in other schools. Historically, we have opened doors to folks and they have come to us for reasons other than our academic programs.
“Our programs differ from those of other schools,” he continues. “You don’t get as much teaching and hands-on care[at other schools] as you do [at HBCUs]. Our professors are involved with a lot more than research and teaching. We do some real close mentoring, for instance, that you don’t get at other places.”
In fact, officials at HBCUs point to the strength of their faculty as the reason they are attracting more students to their graduate programs.
“I think most of our applicants are looking to study with renowned scholars, and as HBCUs attract more renowned scholars, the student population tends to follow them,” says Dr. Dorris Robinson-Gardner, dean of the graduate school at Jackson State.
While some express a wait-and-see attitude about the popularity of HBCU doctoral programs, administrators at HBCUs echo Boone’s observations about the uniqueness of HBCU graduate programs.
“We’re still so brand new to the public that that question [of the rising number of Blacks dissertating at HBCUs] can be better answered five years down the road,” says Dr. Howard D. Hill, professor of educational leadership at South Carolina State and chair of the department of educational leadership.
And Blacks aren’t the only ones showing interest in these programs.
At South Carolina State, “we have a quality product and it’s just not the African Americans who are attending. We’re getting a lot of Caucasians. In fact, the university center at Greenville has mostly Caucasian students,” Hill says.
However, Boone acknowledges that certain areas of study have a track record for producing Black doctorates, especially at Clark Atlanta.
“Our [HBCU] programs on the international side have been fruitful because we’ve been able to [produce doctorate degrees] for a long period of time and we have a fairly good track record in that area,” he says.
The programs to which Boone refers are primarily concentrated in the political sciences.
“For a long time, we have been a [leading] producer of Ph.D.s in political science,” he says. “That’s mainly because of Africa, the Caribbean and the interest in the Black experience in this country. Many of our students here at Clark Atlanta have gone on to work in foreign states and have been active in the political arena in this country as well.
“I suspect the same thing is happening across the board,” he adds.
Boone also notes that Clark Atlanta and other HBCUs can offer the more traditional attractions for graduate students — attractions that aren’t necessarily ethnic-oriented.
“We have been at this in some areas of graduate education for 25, 30 years,” he says. “We’ve been able to get the research funds that will attract students. We have some very good physicists and other scientists and that attracts students. We have a faculty that can represent themselves very well on the national scene.”
Boone also says that dual degree programs offer attractive alternatives for those considering HBCUs for graduate education.
“We have some dual degree programs that have worked very well,” he says, “particularly those that combine math and engineering and social work and public health.”
As for the overall increase in African Americans obtaining doctorates, Hill says, “We have more students who can pass eligibility [standards] with the GRE and MAT scores.”
Robinson-Gardner expresses a similar thought, saying that all the doctoral programs at Jackson State require a 3.0 grade-point average for admittance, with some programs requiring a 3.5 GPA.
“We also created an atmosphere of rigor and excellence,” she says. “Our admissions requirements are extremely strong, and so are attracting doctoral students that can be successful in the program.”
The 209 Effect
And that may help explain why traditionally White institutions also are seeing an increase in their African American doctorate production. In fact, a look at the Top 50 list of Black Ph.D. producers shows that while 14 institutions reported a decline in their numbers, ranging from 5.9 percent to 44.1 percent, 14 other institutions reported increases of at least 95 percent.
And one of those schools with a large one-year percentage increase is located in a state where the voters have eliminated affirmative action as a tool to increase minority participation. The University of California-Los Angeles, which ranked 18th in 1997-98, increased its number of Black doctoral graduates by 100 percent over the previous year.
Dr. Jim L. Turner, assistant vice chancellor for graduate programs at UCLA, wonders if that isn’t misleading. “I’m not sure those rates show the full effect of Proposition 209,” he says, referring to the California anti-affirmative action initiative that was passed in 1998. “Those numbers are probably the result of the pre-209 successful recruitment strategies we employed.”
Turner points out that students in the pipeline started working on their doctoral degrees five to 10 years earlier — long before the California Civil Rights Initiative, as Proposition 209 is called, took effect. According to Turner, a doctoral candidate spends almost seven years working towards a degree at UCLA — which, he says, is about the same nationwide.
“Our own admissions numbers of doctoral students at UCLA immediately post-209 suggest that African American students have dropped,” he says. “There has been a smaller number of African Americans in doctoral programs for at least the first two years after 209.”
While Turner estimates that African American participation in the programs has dropped about 15 percent, he adds, “We appear to have made some success for next fall, but just from the general sense of things, we haven’t yet bounced back.
“Particularly for domestic nonresidents,” Turner adds, “the Ph.D. candidates from outside the state were seeing the media coverage from 209 [and seem to have decided that California] would not be a climate where they wanted to go to. It wasn’t the case that the applicant pool declined significantly, but when it came time to make a decision, they chose to go elsewhere.”
Turner also says that the number of under-represented minorities enrolled in graduate courses at UCLA has remained pretty much unchanged. However, the demographics of that particular group are very different from pre-209. “African Americans were the primary group impacted by 209.”
“Whenever public policy changes, there is always a shift” in demographics at the different schools, notes Clark Atlanta’s Boone. “When the public began developing an interest in diversity, [the traditionally White institutions] were able to attract different kinds of people because they had more money to offer, as well as their prestige. Now that the political atmosphere is more conservative — and, by my observations, more reactionary — and with the Supreme Court sending out a ruling that [implies] the country is colorblind,” majority institutions are attracting fewer minorities.
“It also gives some institutions a reason not to extend their reach and seek out other folks,” he adds, “and HBCUs have always been there for them.”
After the California initiative became law, “we had to modify our program and [have] the eligibility requirements based more on socio-economic standing and overcoming handicaps and things such as that. Some of those in the African American pool did not qualify because they were coming from middle-class families and families where their parents were professionals,” UCLA’s Turner explains. “Recently, those slots have been filled with the newer immigrant group — students from Vietnam and Korea and places like that. So while it looks like there is no difference in the minority numbers, there was a change in the demographics.”
And Turner admits that the drop in African American doctoral candidates is something “we are very concerned about.” To halt the expected decline, he says the university is trying to get the message out — using faculty and students — that Blacks are indeed welcome at UCLA. Additionally, the university is authorizing small grants to the different graduate departments to find ways to increase their diversity.
“What we have done is try to get the faculty and current grad students in each department more actively involved in the outreach process,” he says. “We’re putting more money into recruitment visits, paying for students to come and visit the campus. And we’re getting more grad students and faculty to go out and visit more campuses.”
The Critical Factors
Officials at graduate programs across the country agree with UCLA’s tactics.
“There are two critical factors to having a significant cohort of students of color in a graduate program,” says Dr. Robert E. Steele, associate dean in the college of behavior and social sciences at the University of Maryland-College Park. “First, and this is sort of a chicken-and-the-egg question, they have to get a critical mass of minority students in the program. [Majority institutions] will find out that they are more effective in recruiting students of color if, when these students come to visit the campus, they see more faces like themselves. That’s a very important question for them: Am I going to be the only one here?
“And then, of course, that is augmented by having a critical mass as far as the number of African American faculty,” Steele adds. “If you look at programs at [the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign], [the University of Michigan at] Ann Arbor, UCLA, [or the University of California at] Berkeley, they have critical masses of Black faculty as well as students.”
Explaining the growth at South Carolina State, Hill says, “The success of our program is based on a dedicated faculty who understand the need to be professors who model behaviors that can help the students grow.”
The third factor, Steele says, is having the financial support to attract students of color of color to their campuses.
These graduate school officials believe vigorous recruitment is the key. UCLA’s Turner points to a professor of ethnomusicology who has used one of the graduate program recruitment grants — which can go as high as $10,000 a year — to visit the HBCUs in the Atlanta area and Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“We have gotten four applicants as a result of her travels and three of them are coming,” he says.
Officials at Jackson State credit the Ayers vs. Musgrove desegregation lawsuit with increasing the number of doctoral degrees awarded by the university.
“Because of the Ayers case, we were able to get new Ph.D. and master’s programs added that were attractive to the population we serve,” says Jackson State’s Robinson-Gardner, pointing to new graduate programs in social work, chemistry, business administration, urban and regional planning and environmental sciences.
“We got serious about graduate education because they improved the infrastructure of the graduate school,” she adds. “Also, the institutional priorities were then tied to the institutional budget. They placed the dollars into the appropriate line items in the graduate school. Graduate assistantships and graduate waivers were increased. And then diversity scholarships for White students were added in 1996. Also, funds were allocated to assist students in research activities.”
Recruitment activity at Jackson State also got a boost from Ayers.
“Recruitment funds were also allocated by Ayers, Robinson-Gardner says. “We were sending people not only to professional organization meetings but also to the places where Blacks congregated in large numbers — like the major [Black college] football classics, local churches, Greek organizations — and that really increased our enrollment.”
Officials at HBCUs also point to the recruitment help they get from their students.
“Our students do a wonderful job of publicizing the program,” says South Carolina State’s Hill.
To monitor the success of their diversity drive, administrators, faculty and students of UCLA graduate programs went on a retreat earlier this spring that was dedicated solely to graduate diversity, to compare notes. And, Turner says, some of the programs are targeting professional associations in an attempt to lure people in the work force back into the classroom, noting that contacts with associations of librarians and health-care professionals are showing signs of productivity.
“We’re trying to better educate the faculty in what 209 means and doesn’t mean,” he says. “Proposition 209 in no way inhibits any outreach activities. A goal of diversifying your program is not illegal. We want to expand the old-boy network beyond the old boys.”
The Power of Partnerships
And what can traditionally White institutions do to improve their output of Black graduate students?
“They should be sensitive to the need of students of color in terms of being open to innovation,” Boone advises. “They shouldn’t be lowering their standards, but they should be more innovative.”
Hill notes that South Carolina State uses several innovative strategies to attract students to its program: “We are a weekend university. You can take three classes on Saturday. [That allows students to work during the week,] or else they couldn’t get here. All the doctoral courses are given during the weekend.
“We also have cohorts set up in five locations around South Carolina that allow students to begin their doctoral studies elsewhere,” Hill adds. “But the students must come to the campus for completion of the doctoral degree.”
Maryland’s Steele suggests that institutions end competition for these students and begin cooperating with each other to increase their minority participation. He says that is a better strategy for both the school and the student.
“Generally, most graduate programs would like to send their best students to other programs of equal quality or more competitive,” Steele says. “For a student to spend another four or five years at the same institution where he did his undergraduate work is not beneficial to that student. By that time, they will have already come in contact with all of the instructors at the institution. You want to expand the student’s range of experience.
“Look at the success rate of the Big 10 schools,” he continues. “They’ve been doing these [cooperative partner] programs for years. Michigan has had a program like this for about 17 years.”
Steele sees such partnerships as beneficial to HBCUs as well. In fact, he says, his programs at Maryland are developing successful relationships with institutions like Hampton University and Morehouse College to bring more African American graduate students to his campus. And having earned his undergraduate degree at Morehouse, he appreciates the increase in Black enrollment in graduate programs at minority institutions.
“That’s a move in a positive direction,” he says. “And as those programs solidify themselves, it’s a marvelous opportunity for them to reconnect to their nonminority minorities” — students who are in the majority at the school but in the minority in the general public.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com