Historically Black Colleges and Sciences

In anticipation of a new U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on historically black colleges and universities, Gail Heriot at The Right Coast has been doing some reading.

These institutions, which produce only 20% of African-American students, launch a striking 40% of all African-American science and engineering graduates. Heriot wonders as to this:

Why might this be? In 1996, Rogers Elliott, A. Christopher Strenta, et al. took a look at the why African-American and Hispanic students are less likely to follow careers in science than white or Asian-American students in “The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions.” They found that African-American and Hispanic students at elite colleges and universities are about as likely as white or Asian-American students to start off intending to major in science. But they abandon those intentions in larger numbers. The authors concluded that mismatch probably played a major role.

Heriot cites segments from the report:

Why are so many talented minority students, especially blacks, abandoning their initial interests and dropping from science when they attend highly selective schools? The question has many possible answers, but we will begin with the factor we think most important, the relatively low preparation of black aspirants to science in these schools, hence their poor competitive position in what is a highly competitive course of study. As in most predominantly white institutions, and especially the more selective of them, whites and Asians were at a large comparative advantage by every science-relevant measure …

It’d be interesting to see the hypothesis tested against African-American students’ performance at non-elite, non-historically black colleges. The study’s attention to a common level of academic preparation (without the lags that dog black performance at elite colleges) seems the most convincing factor. Perhaps they’re additionally better at providing encouragement to minority science careers than institutions of comparable quality? Hopefully the Commission’s report will shed additional light on this.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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