Graduating more black Ph.D.s

April 01, 1992

Frank L. Morris Sr., dean of graduate studies at Morgan State University, says the nation's graduate schools systematically resist qualified black applicants in favor of foreign doctoral candidates. "The unspoken norm, almost not questioned, is that somehow international diversity is more to be valued than local diversity," Dr. Morris charged. "As society becomes much more technological, we [blacks] as a people are being shut out."

There's no denying black graduate students are underrepresented on the nation's campuses, particularly in science and math. In 1990, only 3.4 percent of U.S. doctoral degrees were awarded to blacks. In the same year foreign students, whose numbers on U.S. campuses have doubled over the past decade, won nearly a third of U.S. Ph.D.s. But it's a stretch to suggest, as Dr. Morris does, that there is a causal link between these facts.

It is likely that several different trends are at work. One is the well-documented gap between foreign and U.S. students generally in math and science -- a gap that has occurred, moreover, in an era when technical subjects have become the most important magnet for university research funds. Foreign students take more math and science in high school than U.S. students and score higher on standardized tests. So they are overrepresented in the applicant pool for graduate studies.

A second factor involves the equally well-documented predominance of males in science and engineering programs; women generally are a minority in these fields. But since more black women than black men go to college, and since, as women, they are less likely to take technical subjects, the black applicant pool for graduate math and science programs is further reduced.

Finally, there is the sad state of inner-city public schools, where most black students get their educations. In Maryland, the wealthiest school districts spend a third more per pupil than the poorest districts. The success of UMBC's Meyerhoff Scholars Program shows that black students with a solid high school foundation excel in college math and science. Yet urban schools are not putting nearly enough such students into the pipeline.

That is the first thing that needs to change. The surest way to increase the number of black Ph.D.s is not by passing new admissions laws for universities or resorting to xenophobic bashing of foreigners, but by reforming the public schools where most black students are educated so they are prepared for successful college careers.

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