More Physicists, Fewer Fullbacks

Why black colleges need to focus more on science and less on sports.

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Our nation's future lies in science and technology.

Already in high demand, engineers and scientists will be needed even more in years to come. As the White House celebrates the contributions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities this week, they should be looking at the demand as an opportunity and a challenge.

There is a clear and present need. Microsoft founder Bill Gates warned Congress last March that American companies "face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs."

Among black students in particular, there is a distinct technological training deficit. According to Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 from the federal National Science Board, only 8.4 percent of college graduates in 2005 who received degrees in science and engineering were black.

There has been a slow and steady increase of black science and engineering graduates over the surveyed period of 1985 to 2005, but this black progress was nonetheless outpaced by Hispanic and Asian gains.

Compounding the problem of so few blacks receiving science and engineering degrees is that a consistent rate of over 30 percent of incoming black freshmen over the years regularly intend on pursuing such majors while less than a third actually obtain a degree.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, told Science magazine: "What is holding minority students back is not a lack of interest in science but rather the fact that educational disadvantages are cumulative in nature, so that failures or low performance early on in school make it difficult for them to attain the prerequisites they need to continue."

To try to address this need, the America COMPETES Act in 2007 dramatically increased funding for physical science research as well as for promoting math, science and foreign language studies in our schools.

While signing it into law, President Bush said he hoped it would provide "a comprehensive strategy to help keep America the most innovative nation in the world by strengthening our scientific education and research, improving our technological enterprise, and providing 21st century job training."

I co-authored a book chapter with Angela Albert titled "HBCU's Institutional Advantage" in Understanding Minority-Serving Institutions, (SUNY Press, 2008). The chapter focuses on the idea that HBCUs are effective producers of teachers. The question surfaced, "Why can't HBCUs also be effective producers of scientists and engineers?" The answer is, of course, that they can be effective producers of scientists and engineers, but they may have to sacrifice other aspects of their production to accomplish this outcome.