03/05/2012 11:38 am ET Updated May 05, 2012

Succeeding in STEM: Lessons From Black Colleges

The good news is that African Americans are earning more college degrees. Over the past 10 years, there has been a 27 percent increase in the number of degrees earned overall by blacks. However in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, we aren't seeing as much growth. There is growth in the biological sciences with degree completion up by 21%, but we have seen no growth in engineering and a decline in degrees in the physical sciences and math.

Within majority institutions, there are several practices that impede degree completion for African Americans (and others) in the STEM fields. Often the 'survival of the fittest' mentality in these programs works against students of color who are more likely to excel in a supportive, success oriented environment. And, the presence of 'weeding out the weak' classes can be daunting. Many institutions have moved to calling these courses 'gateway' courses but these changes have not taken place at all majority institutions. More than just a renaming, what is really needed is an attitude shift when it comes to gateway courses. These courses need to be seen as a place where students get their start, where strengths and weaknesses are identified and addressed with the goal of moving students forward. Two other factors impede success at majority institutions: a lack of institutional responsibility and a lack of critical mass in terms of students. Too often at majority institutions, when students fail in STEM classes, the blame is placed on the student. However, institutions also need to examine what they are doing to foster success or impede it. And, too often African Americans are the only 'one' in their STEM classes. Bringing in a critical mass of students of color is an empowering strategy for success (just look at the success of the Posse Foundation, which works with colleges to bring in critical masses of students of color).

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a lot to teach us about success for African Americans in the STEM fields. These institutions, which represent a mere 3 percent of the nation's colleges and universities," produce 19 percent of all African American STEM bachelor's degrees. More specifically, they produce 38 percent of African American degrees in the biological sciences, 31 percent in math, 35 percent in computer science, 34 percent in physical science, and 22 percent in engineering. Given that HBCUs have fewer resources and often work with low-income, first generation students, their track records are quite impressive.

So what are HBCUs doing? First, HBCUs highlight success in the academic and co-curriculum. Professors and STEM-related administrators assume success on the part of black students rather than waiting for them to fail. Second, HBCUs immerse students in science in order to make up for past deficiencies (due to inadequate K-12 preparation). Third, HBCUs have role models of the same race, especially in faculty positions. Seeing someone that looks like you or has a similar cultural background teaching you or in the career you desire is empowering. Third, a spirit of cooperation permeates the HBCU environment. Students are often told that they are responsible for the success of other students. No one receives the "look to your right, look to your left, one of you won't be here message." In fact, the message is often the opposite: "look to your right, look to your left, now make sure that you take care of the people on both sides of you." Lastly, the curriculum at HBCU is filled with socially relevant examples and people of color write many of the readings. Seeing oneself in the curriculum makes a difference and research tells us that African Americans respond favorably to socially relevant curricula.

The strategies that HBCUs employ help to ensure success in the STEM fields. Imagine how much success African Americans would have, as well as the nation as a whole, if all colleges and universities implemented these approaches to student success. Perhaps we would be more globally competitive and be a place of greater innovation given that we would be engaging all minds rather than just a select few.