Report Urges Greater Efforts to Boost Opportunities for African Americans in Doctoral Programs

A new report from the Brookings Institution examines the progress African Americans have made in doctoral degree awards. Only about 2 percent of American adults hold a doctorate degree but the reports says that “the racial composition of those earning doctorates looks very different from the racial composition of the general population, raising questions of whether the benefits of racial representation in doctorate-level professions can be realized.”

In 1980, Black doctoral earners received about 40 percent of the doctorates they would have received if the percentage of doctorates equaled the Black percentage of the population. There has been significant improvement in the share of doctorates awarded to Black people, now at about four-fifths of what racial parity would call for.

The report asks: “How long will it take for URM groups to reach parity, given historical rates of improvement? As a rough calculation, the Black share rose from 43 percent to 79 percent in 39 years — a rate of almost 1 percentage point a year — with a remaining gap of 21 percentage points. Thus, if we assume similar trends in doctoral attainment and in demographic growth in the coming years, the answer is another 22 years for Black doctorates.”

But the overall figures hide the fact that Black research doctorates are much less likely to be in STEM fields than is true for other groups. And Black research doctorates are disproportionately in the field of education.

The report urges greater efforts to get Black undergraduates involved in research activities and for universities to offer greater financial aid for students from low-income families.

“The representation of underrepresented minority groups at the doctoral level has improved — indeed, it has improved substantially” the report concludes. “However, representation remains well below parity in the population and there seems to be little reason to believe ‘benign neglect’ will resolve the issue. Regardless of any future Supreme Court decisions, affirmative steps to attract underrepresented groups into programs at the highest levels of education — especially in STEM areas — continue to be needed.”

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