Reaching higher

May 28, 2006

The University of Mississippi graduated four African-American students with doctorates in math last weekend, setting a university record and dealing another blow to the institution's segregated past.

This news was celebrated in academic circles, and rightly so. That such a small number was considered significant, however, illustrates the dearth of black students receiving doctorates in math and other sciences nationally. It also points to the need for continued recruitment and mentoring of black doctoral candidates by American universities.

Just 35 black students received doctorates in mathematical sciences nationwide last year. This shortage extends to other disciplines as well, particularly in hard sciences and engineering. Of 10,952 doctorate degrees in math awarded in the U.S. from 1990 through 2003, only 134 went to black graduates, according to the National Science Foundation. And in 2003, just 661 black students received doctorates in science or engineering out of 15,669 awarded.

Part of the problem is low enrollment in doctoral programs and high attrition by black students, and a shortage of black professors with doctorates to serve as role models and mentors in what can be a very isolating learning environment. The University of Maryland, College Park and University of Maryland, Baltimore County have worked to increase those numbers by recruiting promising black undergrads, placing them in the Ph.D. pipeline, and offering them rigorous training and strong support systems.

Those efforts have paid off. Nine black students have received doctoral degrees in math from College Park since 1996. UMBC, meanwhile, which has a special program for minority scholars, has earned a national reputation for graduating blacks with doctorates - 14 in the last three years alone - and sending others off to earn doctorates at other universities. Eighteen UMBC graduates will do so this year. This is no small feat considering that the total number of blacks graduating with doctoral degrees remained in the single digits until 1998.

The worry now is that the total number of graduates is stagnant. But by following the proven practices at UMBC and at Mississippi, other universities can and should develop winning formulas to attract and retain black doctoral candidates and, more important, award them with advanced degrees.

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