The Solid Progress of African Americans in Degree AttainmentsFrom bachelor's degrees to doctorates, blacks have made solid progress in degree attainments across the board.
In 2004 blacks earned their highest number of bachelor's degrees in history, more than double the number they earned in 1990.
As we report on page 38 of this issue of JBHE, black enrollments in college and graduate school have reached an all-time high. But the more important measure of African-American progress in higher education is the extent to which African Americans are completing college and earning a degree.
Is there a special reason why this is important? There are many reasons, one of which is particularly important. Blacks who have stayed in college and completed their bachelor's degree program are the ones who now have achieved near earnings parity with their white counterparts.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in the year 2004 blacks earned 131,241 four-year bachelor's degrees from American colleges and universities. The number of blacks earning bachelor's degrees was up nearly 6 percent from the previous year. In this year the number of African Americans earning bachelor's degrees was the highest in this nation's history and was more than double the number of bachelor's degrees earned by blacks in 1990.
The large increase in bachelor's degrees earned by blacks is encouraging, but it must always be remembered that only about two out of every five black students who enroll as freshmen in college go on to graduate within six years from the same institution they entered. Blacks are now nearly 12 percent of total enrollments in higher education, but in the 2004 academic year they earned only 9.4 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded. But note that this figure too measures considerable progress. As recently as 1985 blacks earned only 5.9 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States.
A major factor in the closing of the racial gap in bachelor's degrees earned is the unusually strong performance of black women. In the 2003-04 academic year, black women earned 87,390 bachelor's degrees, almost double the number earned by black men. Black women now earn two thirds of all bachelor's degrees obtained by African Americans. Do not be mistaken, black men, too, have made progress. Over the past dec-ade, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by black men is up more than 40 percent. This is triple the gain posted by white men, but it still pales in comparison to the gains posted by black women.
A Breakdown of Black Bachelor's Degree Awards
When we break down the statistics on bachelor's degrees, we see that there is very little difference in the fields of study chosen by black and white college students.
For blacks, business management was by a large margin the most popular major. Blacks earned 33,404 bachelor's degrees in the field of business management and administration in the 2003-04 academic year. This was 25.5 percent of all bachelor's degrees earned by blacks. African-American college students, in common with whites, are heavily career oriented and they tend to shape their course studies accordingly. They want to learn skills that will help them get a good job after graduation so that they can pay off their student loans and ensure that they will have a good shot at achieving higher income status than their parents, most of whom entered their wage-earning years in Jim Crow society.
Most white college students have the same goals. As a result, business management was also the most popular field of study among whites. More than 20 percent of all white bachelor's degrees were earned in the field of business. For both blacks and whites, the percentage of all college students who major in business has increased in recent years.
The next most popular field of study for blacks who earned bachelor's degrees was the social sciences. This includes sociology, economics, and political science. Education was the second most popular major among whites. The fields of psychology, communications, and health sciences were popular majors among both racial groups. It is noteworthy to point out that computer science was the fifth most popular major among blacks but was not among the 10 most popular majors for whites.
Fields in Which Blacks Claim a Larger Share of Degrees Than is Generally Expected
Although blacks now earn 9.4 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the United States, they earn a far greater share of all degrees in certain academic fields. Blacks claimed the greatest share of all degrees in the field of public administration. More than 22 percent of all degrees awarded in the field went to blacks. African Americans also earned 18 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States in the field of security and protective services. Degrees in this field include the study of criminology and other police sciences. Blacks also make up more than 10 percent of all degree earners in the fields of business, social sciences, psychology, health sciences, computer science, law, family and consumer science, biological sciences, and liberal arts and humanities.
Unfortunately, the percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to blacks in the fields of physics, mathematics, history, engineering, and foreign languages was well below the national average of 9.4 percent.
Another important statistic contained in the new Department of Education figures shows that the stereotypical view of the African-American college student rushing into black studies majors is totally false. Only 960, or 0.7 percent, of all African-American bachelor's degree recipients received their degree in any type of ethnic studies discipline. Therefore, only one out of every 143 bachelor's degrees awarded to blacks was in ethnic studies. In fact, there are more blacks who majored in the physical sciences a field in which there are very few African Americans than African Americans who earned their degree in black studies. There are more than seven times as many blacks majoring in computer science and more than five times as many blacks majoring in the biological sciences than in black studies. Blacks make up only 13 percent of the students earning bachelor's degrees in ethnic studies disciplines. Whites earned 58 percent of all bachelor's degrees in ethnic studies in the United States in the 2003-04 academic year.
The Progress of Blacks in Master's Degrees
In the 2003-04 academic year blacks earned 50,657 master's degrees at U.S. colleges and universities. This was 9.1 percent of all master's degrees awarded that year. The number of blacks earning a master's degree was up more than 14 percent from the previous year. Since 2000 the number of blacks earning master's degrees is up by more than 41 percent.
As was the case with bachelor's degrees, blacks have made significant progress over the past 15 years in increasing the number of master's degrees earned. In 1990, 15,446 African Americans were awarded master's degrees from U.S. universities. During the 2003-04 academic year, this figure had more than tripled to more than 50,000. The percentage of all master's degrees earned by blacks has increased from 5 percent in 1985 to 9.1 percent today.
Here, too, black women are leading the way. In the 2003-04 academic years, black women earned 36,004 master's degrees compared to 14,653 for black men. Thus, black women accounted for 71 percent of all master's degrees awarded to African Americans.
Master's Degree Awards by Specific Disciplines
As was the case with bachelor's degrees, we can also break down black master's degree awards by major disciplines. Education was the most popular master's degree for both blacks and whites. This is because many public school districts in the United States require teachers to have a master's degree before they are certified to teach. More than 31 percent of all master's degrees awarded to African Americans in 2004 were in the field of education.
Business management was the second most popular master's degree for both blacks and whites. More than 28 percent of all master's degrees earned by blacks were in the field of business. Thus, nearly three fifths of all master's degrees awarded to blacks in the 2003-04 academic year were in the two fields of education and business.
Public administration, health science, and psychology were the next three most popular master's degree disciplines for blacks. Compared to their overall percentage of master's degrees awarded, blacks made up a larger share of all master's degree recipients in the fields of business, public administration, psychology, communications, security and protective services, and family and consumer science. The black percentage of master's degree recipients was below 3 percent in the fields of engineering, physical sciences, agriculture, mathematics, and foreign languages.
Blacks Earning Professional Degrees
Before we conclude our analysis of degree attainment by African Americans, we need to consider degrees in the professions. These include degrees in medicine, law, dentistry, and several other fields. In the 2003-04 academic year, blacks earned 5,930 professional degrees. These made up 7.1 percent of all professional degrees awarded in the United States that year.
The number of blacks earning professional degrees has increased at a slow but steady rate in recent years but there was a far more rapid pace of improvement in the early 1990s. Law and medical degree awards, the two disciplines with the most professional degrees, have seen a drop-off in blacks in recent years. Blacks have seen significant professional degree gains in pharmacy, podiatry, and divinity.
More than 2,900 African Americans earned a law degree in the 2003-04 academic year, making up 7.3 percent of all law degree recipients and nearly half of all blacks who earned a professional degree. More than 1,000 black students earned a medical degree, making up 6.8 percent of all medical school graduates. Blacks made up nearly 14 percent of all students who earned a professional degree at divinity schools.
However, blacks continue to have a very small presence in professional degree awards in dentistry, osteopathic medicine, optometry, chiropractic medicine, and veterinary medicine.
The gender gap in professional degree awards is large but not as wide as in bachelor's and master's degree attainments. The year 1989 was the first year that black women earned more professional degree awards than black men. In 2004 black women earned 62 percent of all professional degrees awarded to African Americans.
African-American Doctoral Degrees Reach an All-Time High
Before concluding, it is important to note that blacks also have made tremendous strides in doctoral degree awards. JBHE previously presented an extensive study on the latest data in this area (JBHE, Number 50, Winter 2005/2006, page 6).
To summarize, the latest report prepared by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago finds that 1,869 African Americans earned doctorates in 2004. This was a very large increase of more than 9 percent from 2003. For the second year in a row, the number of black doctorates set an all-time high. In 2004 blacks made up 7.1 percent of all doctorates awarded to American citizens. This too was an all-time high.
The overall progress in the past two decades has been rock solid. In 1987 only 787 African Americans earned doctorates. This year's total of 1,869 doctorates is nearly 2.4 times as many as were earned in 1987. In 1990 the black share of all doctoral awards was 3.6 percent. That has now grown to 7.1 percent, a showing of significant progress in a relatively short period of time of 15 years.
Thus, at all levels of higher education from the community colleges straight through to the doctoral level, there is good news to report on degree attainments. Yes, much work needs to be done to improve the overall black student graduation rate, but the evidence clearly shows that large and increasing numbers of African Americans are obtaining success in higher education.