Marybeth Gasman and Thai-Huy Nguyen

Despite progress, there is still a great need for diversity and innovation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Of concern, there exists a significant gap in educational opportunities for African Americans. For example, in 2021, only 9% of bachelor’s degrees and 5% of Ph. D.s awarded in STEM went to African Americans. As African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, these percentages demonstrate inequities in STEM education. In addition, according to the National Science Foundation (2023), African Americans make up only 9% of the STEM workforce in the U.S. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) offer a path to diversifying both STEM education and the STEM workforce and it is one from which majority colleges and universities can learn. Despite making up less than 3% of the nation’s institutions of higher education, HBCUs graduate nearly 25% of STEM undergraduate students. Moreover, 12% of Ph. D.s in STEM are awarded by HBCUs.

In this essay, we explore lessons drawn from a large-scale study of STEM programs at HBCUs. By examining HBCUs’ commitment to success and innovation in STEM, we can derive insights that can benefit the broader STEM community.

One of the most important differences between HBCUs and the majority of STEM programs in the U.S. is that HBCUs take a proactive stance in assuming institutional responsibility for the success of African American students in STEM. Rather than blame students for their lack of success, they ask, “What can we do better?” HBCUs also promote intellectual generosity among students, creating a supportive environment where knowledge sharing is highly valued and normalized.

HBCUs demonstrate a strong sense of belonging and convey messages of inherent inclusivity to students on a regular basis. Sense of belonging – a student’s perception of affiliation and identification within the college setting – has been shown to be a key factor in the retention of African American students in STEM.

Research demonstrates that having same race or same gender (or both) role models can make a difference in the lives of African American students and increase their social capital. HBCUs, which have the most diverse faculty in the U.S., provide same-race and same-gender role models, motivating students by showcasing successful individuals who look like them.

The STEM environment that colleges and universities cultivate is vitally important to student success. Unfortunately, most institutions aren’t focused on the environment and allow for a deeply competitive and productivity-focused climate. HBCUs foster a culture of family within STEM departments, promoting camaraderie, shared goals, holistic approaches, and a supportive network.

Peer support is another strategy that may promote degree attainment in the STEM fields. At many HBCUs, there is a climate in which students support one another rather than work against each other—there is an ethos of “your success is my success and vice versa.” Study groups and peer tutoring are the main ways that peer support takes place, and this mechanism promotes academic achievement and hard work among students. At times, peer tutors inhabit a space that can be hard to access for faculty members – an area between student aspiration and student accomplishment.

Faculty members at HBCUs prioritize student learning over their convenience, working collaboratively to design STEM curricula that amplify student learning. This type of approach is under researched and can even be controversial among faculty, who tend to organize their classes and research agendas to serve their own needs first given the amount of work they balance in these roles. In prioritizing student needs, HBCU faculty often work closely with their faculty colleagues to design courses rather than in the more autonomous ways that most faculty craft courses are designed. HBCU faculty invest time in learning from their colleagues and building on each other’s contributions.

The insights gained from the faculty and students in the STEM fields at HBCUs offer valuable lessons for addressing the persistent gaps in STEM. Despite their relatively small representation in higher education, HBCUs excel in enrolling and graduating African American students in STEM fields, serving as exemplars for diversity and supportive environments that foster student success. To bridge the gaps, colleges and universities beyond HBCUs should assess their strategies in STEM education and embrace those offered by HBCUs.

About the Authors

Marybeth Gasman, Associate Dean for Research at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education

Marybeth Gasman is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. She is the author of HBCU: The Power of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024 with Levon T. Esters), and Making Black Scientists: A Call to Action (Harvard University Press, 2019, with Thai-Huy Nguyen).

Thai-Huy Nguyen, Policy researcher at RAND

Thai-Huy Nguyen is a policy researcher at RAND. His research is focused on racial inequality across multiple social domains, including education, STEM, and information literacy. He is the author of Making Black Scientists: A Call to Action (Harvard University Press, 2019, with Marybeth Gasman).

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