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  News & Views

Doctoral Degree Awards to African Americans Reach Another All-Time High

In 2004 African Americans earned 1,869 doctoral degrees. This number has increased more than 9 percent from a year ago. Black doctorates now stand at the highest level in history.

Since 1993, when we began to publish JBHE, a host of events have caused us to publish a steady flow of disappointing news. Yet recent years have seen some indicators showing steady and impressive progress for African Americans in higher education. Overall black enrollments in college and in graduate school have shown solid improvement. But probably the most impressive gain achieved by blacks since the early years of JBHE is the large increase in doctoral degrees awarded to African Americans.

A new 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 has set an all-time high. In 2004 blacks made up 7.1 percent of all doctorates awarded to American citizens. This too is an all-time high. In 2003 blacks were 6.5 percent of all doctoral recipients, at that time the highest level ever achieved.

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 prog-ress in a relatively short period of time of 15 years.

Although African Americans have made solid progress in doctoral awards, much remains to be achieved. In 2004 African Americans were nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population. Therefore, black doctoral awards amounted to slightly more than one half the level that would occur were racial parity to prevail.

Major Shortfalls in the Natural Sciences

There continue to be wide differences among blacks and whites in terms of the academic fields in which they earn doctorates. For instance, 41.3 percent of all doctorates awarded to African Americans in 2004 were in the field of education. In contrast, only 19.1 percent of doctorates earned by whites were in this field. This large percentage of all African-American doctorates in the field of education has been the case for decades with only minor fluctuations.

Arthur Levine, president of the Teachers College at Columbia University, has proposed that these Ed.D. degrees should be abolished and be replaced with a master's degree in educational administration. He believes that people who aspire to be school superintendents or college administrators are wasting their time doing a research dissertation on a topic that will have little or no bearing on the job that they plan to hold. Should the Levine view prevail, the black percentage of all doctoral awards would fall dramatically. If we eliminate educational doctorates from the 2004 statistics, we find that blacks earned only 5.2 percent of all doctorates in fields other than education.

Whites are far more likely than blacks to earn doctorates in the natural sciences. In 2004 nearly 12 percent of doctorates awarded to whites were in the physical sciences. This is nearly triple the percentage for African Americans, which stood at 4.1 percent in 2004. The percentage of all black doctorates that were awarded in the natural sciences has been declining in recent years.

The very large racial Ph.D. gap in the natural sciences is striking when we examine black Ph.D. awards in specific disciplines. For example, not a single African American earned a Ph.D. in astronomy or astrophysics in 2004. In all there were 165 Ph.D.s awarded in these fields. African Americans earned only 10 doctorates in mathematics. This was only 0.9 percent of all doctorates awarded in the field.

A major weakness is that blacks earned 13, or about 1 percent, of the nearly 1,200 doctorates in physics. In computer science, blacks won 0.7 percent of all Ph.D. awards. In the atmospheric sciences, less than 1 percent of all doctorates went to blacks. In chemistry, only 2.3 percent of Ph.D.s went to blacks. In the earth sciences such as geology, oceanography, and the atmospheric sciences, blacks were 1.3 percent of all doctoral recipients, down from 2.3 percent in 2003. In the ocean and marine sciences, only one of the 190 Ph.D.s in the discipline was awarded to an African American. In 2004, 148 African Americans were awarded a Ph.D. in the biological sciences. But they were only 2.5 percent of all doctorates awarded in the discipline. Black Ph.D. awards in the biological sciences did increase by 37 percent from 2003. That year, blacks were awarded 1.9 percent of all doctorates in the biological sciences.

The field of engineering also shows serious weakness in black doctoral student participation. Blacks also trail whites by a large margin in Ph.D.s in engineering. In 2004, 7.0 percent of all white doctorates were earned in the field of engineering. For African Americans, only 4.5 percent of all their doctorates were in engineering. In 2004 blacks earned a mere 1.6 percent of all engineering Ph.D.s. This was a slight improvement over 2003. The huge shortfall in engineering is serious because engineering is a field in which hundreds of thousands of Americans achieve high-income status and middle to upper social status.

Almost No Awards to Blacks in Some Scientific Fields

A strong indicator of the fact that African Americans as a group continue to avoid most of the natural sciences appears in the statistics for specific disciplines. In 2004, 2,100 doctorates were awarded by universities in the United States in the fields of mathematical statistics, botany, optics physics, human and animal pathology, zoology, astrophysics, geometry, geophysics and seismology, general mathematics, nuclear physics, astronomy, marine sciences, nuclear engineering, polymer and plastics engineering, veterinary medicine, topology, hydrology and water resources, animal nutrition, wildlife/range management, number theory, fisheries science and management, atmospheric dynamics, engineering physics, paleontology, plant physiology, general atmospheric science, mathematical operations research, endocrinology, metallurgical engineering, meteorology, ocean engineering, poultry science, stratigraphy and sedimentation, wood science, polymer physics, acoustics, mineralogy and petrology, bacteriology, logic, ceramics science engineering, animal breeding and genetics, computing theory and practice, and mining and mineral engineering. Not one of these 2,100 doctoral degrees went to an African American.

The Gender Gap in Black Ph.D. Awards

As is the case in almost every measure of African-American higher education, black women have come to hold a large lead in doctoral awards. As recently as 1977, black women earned only 38.7 percent of all doctorates awarded to African Americans. By 2000 black women earned 65.7 percent of all doctorates awarded to African Americans. This is the highest percentage of African-American doctoral awards earned by women in U.S. history. Black men narrowed the gap in both 2001 and 2002. But in 2003 and 2004 black women upped their percentage of all doctorates earned by African Americans. In 2004, 65.5 percent of all African-American doctorates were earned by women, just short of the all-time high.

Since 1990 African-American women have increased their number of Ph.D. awards from 550 to 1,224. This is an increase of 123 percent. In contrast, the number of Ph.D. awards to African-American men increased from 351 in 1990 to 645. This is a rise of 83.8 percent.

Doctorates Awarded by Historically Black Universities

In 2004 historically black colleges and universities awarded 350 doctorates to recipients of all races. This was a huge 19 percent increase over 2003.

Howard University awarded 88 doctorates in 2004, the most of any historically black university. The Howard total was up 10 percent from a year ago. Tennessee State University awarded 45 doctoral degrees in 2004, up 25 percent from 2003. Jackson State University, Clark Atlanta University, Morgan State University, Florida A&M University, South Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, Meharry Medical College, and Texas Southern University were the only other black universities to award at least 10 doctorates in 2004.

Two universities that had large increases in doctoral degrees were Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T. In 2003 Florida A&M awarded four doctorates. In 2004 the number was 23. For North Carolina A&T State University, doctoral awards increased from three in 2003 to 21 in 2004. All 21 doctorates given out by the university were in engineering.

Nationwide, about 14 percent of all doctorates given out by U.S. universities each year are in the physical sciences. But data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows that only three of the 350 doctorates awarded at historically black colleges and universities in 2004 were in these fields. All three were awarded by Alabama A&M University. The black universities gave out only one doctoral degree in mathematics.

Most of the doctorates awarded by black universities were in the social sciences and education, with a large majority of these in the field of education. At South Carolina State University, 23 doctorates were awarded in 2004. All were in the field of education.

Other Racial Disparities in Ph.D. Awards

Here are further facts on doctoral awards to blacks contained in the most recent survey on earned doctorates:

• The average age of a black Ph.D. recipient in 2003 was 37.8 compared to 33.5 for all Americans.

• It appears that the predominantly white faculties of our major research universities prefer white teaching assistants over black teaching assistants. About 18 percent of white Americans who earned doctorates in 2004 served as college teaching assistants during their doctoral study. Only 8.7 percent of black doctoral students served as teaching assistants.

• Black Americans on average took 12.5 years to earn a doctorate after receiving their bachelor's degree and 9.7 years after they first entered graduate school. The average time for all white Americans was 10.5 years after they earned their bachelor's degree and 8.3 years after first entering graduate school. Disparate economic burdens on black and white Ph.D. candidates probably account for much of the difference.

• Some 22 percent of all white Americans who earned doctorates in 2004 plan postdoctoral study. For blacks, 15.5 percent plan on postdoc study.

• Nearly 44 percent of all blacks awarded doctorates in 2004 plan careers in academia. White doctorate recipients were slightly more likely to aspire to teach at the university level. Nearly 10 percent of white Ph.D. recipients plan to secure a job in business or industry compared to 5.6 percent of blacks who earned doctorates.

For most observers the statistics on black doctorates seem of marginal importance. Yet they are a good indicator of black progress in achieving the educational credentials required for teaching positions at our major colleges and universities. It is likely, too, that at such time as blacks achieve Ph.D. parity, or near parity, with whites in all academic disciplines, the day will also mark the arrival of overall racial equality.

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