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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

African Americans Show Solid Gains at All Academic Degree Levels

In 2007 blacks continued their solid progress in attaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees. At both degree levels, blacks increased their number of degrees and also their percentage of total awards. Blacks also reversed a decline in professional and doctoral degrees that occurred in 2006.

Almost Every Year black enrollments in college and graduate school reach new highs. But a more important measure of African-American progress in higher education is the extent to which African Americans are completing college and earning a degree.

Always it is important to keep in mind that blacks who stayed in college and completed their bachelor’s degree program are still a highly select group that is now achieving near earnings parity with their white counterparts.

Given the huge economic benefits that flow from higher education (about $1 million in lifetime earnings), let us examine in some detail how many blacks are achieving a level of success represented by obtaining four-year college degrees.

In the year 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Education, blacks earned 146,653 four-year bachelor’s degrees from American colleges and universities. The number of blacks earning bachelor’s degrees was up nearly 3 percent from the previous year, 2006. In 2007 the number of African Americans earning bachelor’s degrees was the highest in this nation’s history. The figure was nearly 2.5 times the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by blacks in 1990.

The large increase in bachelor’s degrees earned by blacks is encouraging, but the very low black student college graduation rate continues to loom behind the positive news. 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 13 percent of total enrollments in higher education, but in the 2006-07 academic year they earned only 9.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. But note that this figure still measures considerable progress. Three decades ago, in 1977, blacks earned only 6.3 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States.


Black Women Are Far Out Ahead

A most important factor in the closing of the racial gap in bachelor’s degrees earned is the stunning performance of black women. In the 2006-07 academic year, black women earned 96,968 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 decade, the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by black men has increased more than 47 percent. But the result pales in comparison to the huge gains posted by black women. Over the same 10-year period, the number of bachelor’s degrees won by black women has increased by nearly 60 percent.


A Breakdown of Black Bachelor’s Degree Awards

When we break down the statistics on bachelor’s degrees, we see that, contrary to public perceptions, 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 37,054 bachelor’s degrees in the field of business management and administration in the 2006-07 academic year. This field accounted for 25.3 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 acquire 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 incomes than their parents, most of whom entered their wage-earning years in a Jim Crow society.

Most white college students have the same goals. Business management has been the most popular field of study among whites. Slightly 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. In view of the current state of the U.S. economy and the low repute of Wall Street, it is uncertain whether business as a preferred choice of major will continue.

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.


Fields in Which Blacks Claim a Larger Share of Degrees Than is Generally Expected

Although blacks now earn 9.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States, they earn a far greater share of all degrees in certain academic fields. Blacks have claimed the greatest share of all degrees in the field of public administration. More than 23 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 fields of law and security and protective services. Degrees in these fields include the study of criminology and other police sciences. Blacks also make up 10 percent or more of all degree earners in the fields of business, social sciences, psychology, health sciences, communications, computer science, family and consumer science, and liberal arts and humanities.

In today’s careerist-oriented society, the most serious deficit is the huge shortfall in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks in the fields of physics, mathematics, history, engineering, and foreign languages. In these fields, blacks earned less than 6 percent of the degrees.


What About Black Studies?  The Stereotype Is Refuted by the Facts

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 1,095, or 0.7 percent, of all African-American bachelor’s degree recipients received their degree in any type of ethnic or gender studies. Therefore, only one out of every 134 bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks was in ethnic or gender 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 nearly five 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 13.4 percent of the students earning bachelor’s degrees in ethnic or gender studies. There are four times as many whites who earned bachelor’s degrees in ethnic or gender studies as blacks who majored in this field.


The Progress of Blacks in Master’s Degree Attainments

While blacks continue to make steady progress in bachelor’s degree awards, the performance of African Americans in winning master’s degrees has been spectacular. In the 2006-07 academic year blacks earned 62,574 master’s degrees at U.S. colleges and universities. This was 10.3 percent of all master’s degrees awarded that year. The number of blacks earning a master’s degree was up 6 percent from the previous year. Since 2000 the number of African Americans earning master’s degrees has increased by more than 74 percent.

As was the case with bachelor’s degrees, blacks have made significant progress over the past 20 years in increasing the number of master’s degrees earned. In 1990, 15,336 African Amer-icans were awarded master’s degrees from U.S. universities. In the 2006-07 academic year, this figure had more than quadrupled. The percentage of all master’s degrees earned by blacks has increased from 5 percent in 1985 to 10.3 percent today. In the past year alone, the percentage of all master’s degrees earned by blacks jumped from 9.9 percent to 10.3 percent.

Here, too, black women are leading the way. In the 2006-07 academic year, black wo-men earned 44,667 master’s degrees compared to 17,907 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. In past years education was the most popular master’s degree for both blacks and whites. This appears to have happened 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 29 percent of all master’s degrees awarded to African Americans in 2007 were in the field of education.

But in 2007 business management was the most popular master’s degree for blacks whereas master’s degrees in education were still the most popular for whites. More than 31 percent of all master’s degrees earned by blacks were in the field of business. Thus, more than three fifths of all master’s degrees awarded to blacks in the 2006-07 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 education, business, public administration, psychology, security and protective services, communications, and family and consumer science. The black percentage of master’s degree recipients was below 4 percent in such fields as the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, agriculture, and foreign languages.


Blacks Earning Professional Degrees

The news is less encouraging when we examine the new data on degrees earned by African Americans in the professions. These include degrees in medicine, law, dentistry, and several other fields. In the 2006-07 academic year, blacks earned 6,474 professional degrees. These made up 7.2 percent of all professional degrees awarded in the United States that year.

The number of blacks earning professional degrees increased slightly in 2007 after a small decline in 2006. Law and medical degree awards, the two disciplines in which blacks have the most professional degrees, have seen a drop-off in recent years. Blacks have achieved professional degree gains in pharmacy, podiatry, and divinity.

More than 3,100 African Americans earned a law degree in the 2006-07 academic year, making up 7.3 percent of all law degree recipients. They were nearly half of all blacks who earned a professional degree. More than 1,100 black students earned a medical degree, making up 7.2 percent of all medical school graduates. Blacks made up more than 17 percent of all students who earned a professional degree in podiatry and nearly 14 percent of all students who won a professional degree in divinity. 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 2007 black women earned 63 percent of all professional degrees awarded to African Americans, down from 64 percent in 2005.


Tracking Black Progress in Doctoral Degree Awards

Before concluding, it is important to note that over the past two decades African Americans also have made tremendous strides in doctoral degree awards. In 1987 only 787 African Americans earned doctorates. In 2004 the number of blacks earning doctoral degrees reached an all-time high of 1,869. In 2005 there was a 10 percent decline in doctoral degree awards to blacks and a further 2 percent decline in 2006. But in 2007, 1,821 blacks were awarded doctoral degrees. This is just short of the all-time high.

The 2007 total of 1,821 doctorates is more than 2.3 times the number of doctorates earned by blacks in 1987. In 1990 the black share of all doctoral awards was 3.6 percent. That has now grown to 6.6 percent, a showing of significant progress in the relatively short period of time of 17 years.

The sum of our story is that 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 by African Americans. Yet much work needs to be done to improve the black student college graduation rate. Overall, the evidence clearly shows that large and increasing numbers of African Americans are attaining success in higher education.