Overcoming Barriers to the Pursuit of PhD’s by African Americans

Apr 29, 2019 | Education

S. E. WilliamsContributor

In 2016 it was widely reported that Black women were among the nation’s most educated demographic and they were continuing to earn the highest percentage of African-American doctoral awards in U.S. history.

As the Black community celebrates this progress it is also important to recognize there is still much room for growth.

A recent report by The Atlantic highlighted there are still several educational disciplines where no PhD’s are being earned by African-Americans.

During 2017, the report stressed not a single Black student earned a doctoral degree in more than a dozen academic fields, largely sub-fields in STEM related fields.

Acknowledging the pursuit of graduate level degrees in certain fields have a tendency to rise and fall in alignment with economic and demographic shifts, it is believed the pursuit of higher-level degrees among African-Americans in these field is in part, impacted by the ever-present issue of faculty diversity.

Not surprisingly, in 2017 less than six percent of full-time educators at the country’s institutions of higher learning are Black. Experts describe this dilemma almost like a chicken and egg scenario, i.e., fewer Blacks pursue PhDs in part due to a lack of diversity among educators and the lack of diversity in educators is a result of the “scarcity of Black doctoral-degree recipients.”

Although 50,000 students earned PhDs every year between 2002 and 2017 according to the report, based on data provided by the National Science Foundation the percent of Black doctoral-degree recipients barely increased from 5.1 percent to 5.4.

Among other factors believed to suppress Black people’s pursuit of these degrees include the failure to nurture student interest; concerns over how such programs treat Black people; how Blacks are still disrespected in their professions at times even after earning such degrees; the obstacles they must overcome to be accepted into such programs; and once admitted—the pressing concerns over cost.

Concerns over cost are further impacted by the reality of the nearly 50 percent of Black doctoral students who earn their degrees at for-profit colleges often completing with a much higher debt burden. According to a report by the American Council on Education (ACE) Black college students borrow at a rate higher than any other racial group.

Lorelle Espinosa, Vice President of Research ACE told a reporter for The Atlanticalthough these forces coalesce to dissuade Black students from pursuing doctoral degrees, some of the barriers can be overcome by demystifying graduate/doctoral degree programs for African American students. She stated, “Research, exposure, and experience for undergraduates is a huge predictor of success in research careers.”

On a more positive note, more than a third of Black STEM PhD holders earned their undergraduate degrees at Historically Black Colleges.

Header Photo: Georgiana Rose Simpson, one of the first black women in the U.S. to receive a doctorate.


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