Data Shows Black Institutions Are More Likely to Produce African American Scientists
Every time the public funding of historically Black
colleges and universities (HBCUs) is discussed, the same question
arises: Now that colleges and universities are no longer segregated,
why should a separate system of colleges and universities, begun in the
time of segregation, be maintained?
This issue is being addressed in litigation, most notably in
Georgia, Alabama and in Mississippi’s Supreme Court case, Ayers v.
Fordice. It will undergird some of the Higher Education Act
reauthorization discussions in Congress and debates in state
legislatures from Maryland to Louisiana.
This year as HBCU presidents face their funders, they will have some
powerful new evidence to bolster their position that their institutions
perform a mission that no one else does. The Educational Testing
Service (ETS) is about to issue a study that says that HBCUs do a
better job than traditionally White institutions in several areas –
most notably in steering African American students into the fields of
engineering and the hard sciences, and in shepherding them into and
preparing them for post-baccalaureate study.
These are claims that HBCU leaders have been making for years, but
there has been little quantitative data to back them up. The ETS study,
by Dr. Harold Wenglinsky of the Policy Information Center of the
Educational Testing Service, goes part of the way toward providing that
Wenglinsky said in an interview that although none of his findings
will be surprising to educators who are familiar with historically
Black institutions, “A lot of people not familiar with HBCUs will be
surprised at the effect they have in preparing the pipeline for
Wenglinsky examined three sources of data in drawing his conclusions:
* The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study of 1990 in which the
Department of Education collected information on about 72,000 students
attending postsecondary institutions. The study included a wide variety
of financial information as well as educational and social experience.
Wenglinsky extracted information on both Black and White students who
were attending HBCUs and a comparable sample of students attending
traditionally white institutions (TWIs).
* The 1993 Graduate Record Examination (GRE) database, which
contains information on all students who took the GRE that year,
including which undergraduate school they attended. The GRE is the exam
taken by most students applying to graduate school. This database makes
it possible to study students who attended HBCUs – both Black and White
– and compare them to similar students who attended TWIs.
* The AAU/AGS Project for Research on Doctoral Education, a
database that follows all graduate students in doctoral programs for
ten fields of study from 1989 to 1994. Approximately forty major
research universities are represented. The data, maintained by the
Association of American Universities and the Association of Graduate
Schools (AAU/AGS), is not nationally representative and includes few
White students who attended HBCUs. Nevertheless, Wenglinsky argues it
is still possible to draw some conclusions from the data.
Wenglinsky acknowledges the shortcomings of the data he used. For
example, he points out that his study does not distinguish among the
many kinds of HBCUs or TWIs – public, private, four-year, two-year,
land-grant and elite liberal arts and research. Also, none of the
studies are truly representative, national surveys designed for the
purpose of comparing HBCUs with TWIs.
For his study, Wenglinsky says, “Data to make these comparisons are also not readily available and would have to be collected.”
Dr. Michael Nettles of the Frederick Patterson Research Institute of
The College Fund/UNCF, who reviewed earlier drafts of the paper, agreed
that available data is inadequate to the task of really understanding
the educational role of HBCUs.
“That is a technical limitation,” Nettles said. “But perfection
should not be the enemy of the good. He’s giving it a shot anyway.
Each of the data sources leads Wenglinsky to separate sets of
conclusions. From the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study,
Wenglinsky draws conclusions about why students choose HBCUs over TWIs.
The two main reasons, he finds, are that their parents had attended
HBCUs and that they are more affordable than TWIs – on average a little
more than half the cost. A third reason is that the students wanted to
be far away from their parents.
Other conclusions drawn from this data have to do with the characteristics of students attending HBCUs.
“Students attending HBCUs, and Black students in particular, are
more likely to aspire to a graduate education after college and to
obtain a job in one of the professions,” says the ETS study.
HBCU students also, “appear to be of a much lower [socio-economic
status]; the adjusted gross incomes of their parents are significantly
lower than those of TWI parents,” the study says.
This bolsters the claim of HBCU advocates, Wenglinsky says, that
HBCUs offer a college education to students who would otherwise not be
able to go to college.
According to the data Wenglinsky looked at, African American HBCU
students also tend to be younger than their counterparts at TWIs and
less likely to be married. HBCUs tend to recruit straight from high
school whereas African American enrollment at TWIs reflects the growing
trend of older adults returning to school.
White students who attend HBCUs tend to be older, female, less
likely to aspire to a graduate education than the Black students, and
more likely to aspire to a degree in education, social work and health.
According to Nettles, White students at HBCUs – a growing proportion of
the student body – are often women who have taken time off from their
education to have children and then return to HBCUs because of the cost
From the GRE survey and the AAU/AGS data base, Wenglinsky concludes
that not only do African American HBCU students aspire to a graduate
education more often than their peers at TWIs, they also are more
likely to seek, and complete, a doctorate.
Of the 351,017 White and Black students who took the GRE in 1993
(students from other ethnic groups were not included in the ETS study
because they represent tiny proportions of students at- tending HBCUs),
30,203 were Black. Of the Black students, 33 percent had attended HBCUs.
“When it is recalled that 28 percent of all Blacks graduate from
HBCUs, it appears that Black HBCU graduates are disproportionately
likely to choose to take the GRE,” the study says.
“This is very striking,” Wenglinsky says.
The other major discovery in the study found that African American
GRE students who attended HBCUs, whether they are women or men, “are
more likely than Black TWI students to choose to major in academic
science or business.” Twenty-two percent of Black male HBCU students
and 16 percent of Black female HBCU students, the study says, “choose
to major in academic science, as opposed to 15 percent of Black male
TWI students and 9 percent of Black female TWI students.”
Conversely, the study found that Black students at TWIs tend to
major in the social sciences and the fields of education, social work
Wenglinsky hopes that his study will support HBCUs’ assertions that
they do something for African American students that other institutions
do not do – a function he believes justifies why funding to those
institutions should continue.
“If there is a constructive document with the imprimatur of ETS,
that will be helpful,” says Dr. Earl Richardson, president of Morgan
State University, upon hearing of the forthcoming study. “It will have
Dr. Clinton Bristow, president of Alcorn State University, says that
although he welcomes the study, he no longer feels the need to justify
the existence of his university.
“We’re over that hump,” he says, in part because Alcorn State was
the first land-grant institution in Mississippi and thus has first
claim on federal funding.
Also, Bristow says, Alcorn State has successfully made its case that it produces scientists and graduate students.
“Alcorn does a better job than the non-HBCUs in the state of
Mississippi in graduating students in the sciences. And we rank number
five [in graduating African Americans] in biological sciences.”
In a statement that appears to bolster the ETS report’s conclusions,
Bristow said his commitment to graduate education is such that he
severely limits the number of corporate recruiters on campus.
“I don’t want my students to get a job paying $25,000 a year as a
salesman,” he says. “I push students very hard to go for
post-baccalaureate degrees. If he or she is majoring in mathematics, I
want him to get a Ph.D. in high performance computing. We are trying to
prepare for career options.”
Wenglinsky says he hopes his study highlights the need for more
research, especially because the available data does not help to
explain why HBCUs do so much to train graduate students in the sciences
“When you ask the why question, you get a lot of different answers,” he says.
Although he attempted to look at that by examining student answers
to questions about how much faculty contact they had – often touted by
HBCUs as a key to their success he didn’t find that African American
students from HBCUs had any more contact with faculty than those from
TWIs. He cautions, however, that this method of analysis was a very
“The ways these schools are effective are much more complicated,”
says Wenglinsky, who holds a doctorate in sociology from New York
University and began examining the 1990 National Postsecondary Student
Aid Study in 1993. That study formalized his interest in the
controversy surrounding the existence of HBCUs.
His interest was heightened with the Ayers v. Fordice case, in which
the Justice Department and a number of private citizens argued that
Mississippi’s higher education system was still segregated. The Supreme
Court agreed in 1992 and ruled that any state must justify
educationally the existence of a historically Black college.
The Supreme Court ruling has caused a number of historically Black
colleges – most of which were formed in the period after the Civil War
– to have to prove that they should still exist. Many have argued that
they take students who otherwise could not attend college and train
them for positions of leadership within the community as well as for
good jobs. Some states have accepted that argument more than other
states. Mississippi Valley State, for example, recently fought off
plans to close or merge with another institution.
The political controversy fueled Wenglinsky’s interest in the
educational mission of HBCUs – and he has written on the subject
before, notably in 1996 for the publication Educational Evaluation and
Policy Analysts. The ETS study builds on that earlier piece, though it
contains quite a bit of new research.
ETS undertook the study, Wenglinsky says, as part of its ongoing
commitment to study major educational policy issues. Many HBCUs do not
require SATs of their incoming students and put little emphasis on
them. Even so ETS, which develops the SAT and other standardized tests
used by educational institutions and employers, has worked with HBCUs
on a number of issues – including making sure that the GRE exam, for
example, is a fair instrument of assessment.
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