Isaiah Speight had taken three chemistry courses in high school. So when he got to his first college chemistry class he didn’t think he needed to take it seriously. “I got slammed in my first exam,” he remembers.
His professor at Norfolk State University quickly called Speight into her office for a talk. “She knew that I could do better, and she wanted to give me a push,” he remembers. “She knew that I could take a step forward.”
That was just the kind of push that Speight needed. And that kind of one-on-one, intense intervention is common practice at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), says Speight, who is now a chemistry graduate student at Vanderbilt University. “People know who you are and what you’re capable of at a very early stage.”
For decades, HBCUs have been a bright spot in the training of Black scientists including chemists. Despite their small numbers—there are just 101 HBCUs out of thousands of US colleges and universities—HBCUs send a larger percentage of their Black students on to get graduate degrees than other schools. Many of the top Black chemists who go on to successful careers in industry and academia are HBCU graduates.
How do HBCUs do it? A supportive atmosphere; a diverse, encouraging faculty; and deliberately preparing students for PhDs.
Despite their successes, HBCUs face intense challenges, including funding problems that have led to overworked faculty and a lack of administrative support and equipment. Those challenges could be mitigated with more supports for HBCUs overall and for scientists in particular.
“It’s remarkable how much these institutions are doing, given the stressors and constraints that they face,” says Kent McGuire, program director of education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who cochaired a 2019 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study on minority-serving institutions.
If faculty at HBCUs are given supports similar to those available at predominantly white institutions, McGuire says, “you’ll see the return on investment is pretty significant.”
Colleges for Black scholars were first founded in the 1800s to train former slaves and free Black people who were prevented by law from going to white schools. After the US Civil War, Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic racism continued to stop Black people from attending white schools through the 1960s, so the number of HBCUs expanded.
Willie May, a chemist and former director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), says HBCUs were the only viable option for him growing up in the 1960s in segregated Alabama. He went to Knoxville College, and remembers it as the first place he ever had interactions with white people “where we weren’t calling each other names.”
“It was just the perfect, nurturing environment for me to grow up in,” May says. “I think HBCUs still fulfill a similar role for many young African Americans.”
HBCUs encompass both private and public schools, primarily in the US South and East. Some have doctoral or master’s degree programs, but most are small, undergraduate-focused schools.
Historically, HBCUs have been the pathway to jobs as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals for many Black Americans. Many Black families have a long history of attending HBCUs and encourage their own children to follow in their footsteps.
HBCUs have been especially important in training Black scientists. One US National Science Foundation report showed that from 2002–11, 24% of all Black PhDs in science and engineering earned their bachelor’s degree from an HBCU. Ten of the top 11 undergraduate institutions for Black PhD scientists and engineers were HBCUs, led by Howard University and Spelman College.
By the numbers: HBCUs and chemistry
101: HBCUs in 2018
292,000: Total enrollment in HBCUs in 2018
20 million: Total enrollment in all US institutions in 2018
9%: Black undergraduate students who go to HBCUs
29%: Undergraduate chemistry degrees awarded to Black students from an HBCU in 2018
32%: PhDs in chemistry awarded to Black students from an HBCU in 2018
25%: PhDs in engineering awarded to Black students from an HBCU in 2018
27: HBCUs with ACS-approved undergraduate chemistry programs out of 690 approved schools
5: HBCUs with chemistry PhD programs
1: HBCU with a chemical engineering PhD program
1837: Year first HBCU established, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania
Sources: US Department of Education, US National Science Foundation, American Chemical Society.
Note: All numbers refer to students at and degrees from US institutions.
That has been especially true for chemistry. More recently, 29% of Black students who were awarded chemistry bachelor’s degrees in 2018 came from HBCUs, even though just 9% of Black students nationwide attend the schools. The numbers are even higher at the doctoral level.
Starting in the mid-1980s, more Black students had the option to go to primarily white universities instead of HBCUs, says Willie Pearson, a sociologist at Georgia Institute of Technology who has studied the origins of Black chemists.
Many HBCUs continued to attract large numbers of Black students, but they were often first-generation college students or those from difficult financial circumstances. Despite those challenges, HBCUs continued to graduate Black students at larger rates overall and produce large percentages of Black scientists in particular, Pearson says.
“HBCUs have a special mission. And we have to teach whoever comes to the door,” says Angela Peters, a chemist who is now provost at Albany State University.
Students might come from difficult backgrounds or be the first in their family to go to college, she says, but HBCUs will provide whatever supports are needed to help them recognize their potential.
“HBCUs have not only a sense of community, but it’s the pride and tradition because of how HBCUs were formed,” Peters says. That history is integral to helping students succeed. “At an HBCU you can feel how you are a part of a community of scholars.”
Studies have shown that Black students come into college with the same level of interest in science as other students, but at white schools they tend to fall out of the sciences at higher rates. That isn’t true at HBCUs.
When he retired from NIST in 2017, May was trying to decide what to do with his time. He recognized the access to immense resources he had working at NIST, but he was also reminded that when his mother visited she would ask if other Black scientists worked there. “It would make my mother proud if I went back and tried to contribute at an HBCU,” he decided.
May is now a vice president for research and economic development at Morgan State University. Morgan State and other HBCUs have a huge gap in the amount of resources they have compared to other research universities. But those challenges are worth the effort, May says. “I see so many kids that remind me of myself.”
Leyte L. Winfield went to Dillard University as an undergraduate, and she remembers the whole school as “steeped in the history of the African American experience.”
That history, plus the artistic and cultural nature of New Orleans, “really influences your creativity as well as your scientific thinking,” Winfield says. “As a chemist, I don’t have to be all analytical, all technical. I can be creative. I can push boundaries and think beyond just the molecules.”
Winfield, now a chemistry professor at Spelman, says students at HBCUs get exposed to culture and history of the Black experience not only formally in classes and lectures, but also just by being surrounded by Black students and professors. It helps them recognize their own capabilities and possibilities as Black scientists.
“We’re training the whole student, and we give them a cultural experience that connects with how they identify,” Winfield says.
In her North Carolina high school, Breyinn Loftin was often one of the few Black students in honors classes, and she remembers being shy and quiet.
When she started at Hampton University, “I remember feeling very comfortable because it was a small setting. And most people in the classroom looked like me, the professor most of the time looked like me,” she says. “It was easy to ask questions.”
Loftin says she gained confidence in that setting that has carried over into her work toward a chemistry PhD at the University of Houston, where there are just a few Black students.
“It took me a while to adjust and just realize I’m here for a reason,” Loftin says. “I’m just as qualified as my counterparts.”
Hampton chemistry professor and assistant dean Michelle Claville, who is currently working at the National Science Foundation, says being one of few Black students adds an extra burden for those at predominantly white schools that students at HBCUs don’t have.
As difficult as it is for a white student science major, “it is going to be heavier for me,” she explains. “I walk into a room and the expectation is, ‘she doesn’t do it like we do. She is not as smart as we are. She doesn’t deserve to be here.’ ”
HBCUs have developed a family atmosphere, says Natalie Arnett, a chemical engineering professor at Florida A&M University (FAMU) who worked for 11 years at Fisk University.
That means Arnett could take her daughter to school with her and everyone knew her. That also means being honest with students when they are falling behind, she says.
“Sometimes I had to be that mama voice of ‘You messing up,’ ” Arnett remembers. “My students used to call them come-to-Jesus meetings.”
Other times that meant pushing her students toward the future she could see for them, even before they realized something like a PhD was an option. “What I found was successful for me was really trying to mentor my students in the direction that I want them to go,” Arnett says.
At HBCUs, the faculty, staff, and even the surrounding community all come forward to show students they can succeed. That support “drives you to stay in that particular place and really try to build something,” Arnett says. “You know that if you do, it’s going to ultimately help these students who are going to do great things and bring it back into the community.”
Briana Simms remembers perfectly when her biochemistry professor at Xavier University explained the connection between disulfide bonds, curly hair, and relaxers.
“I just was shook,” she says. “Wow, this white man’s really telling me the chemistry behind my perm. I love it.”
Simms immediately changed her major from chemistry to biochemistry in hopes of learning more. And that was just one of the many times she felt the intense support from the faculty, no matter their race. “Those professors made such an impact on me,” she says. “It was just like a different level of care.”
Faculty at HBCUs tend to be racially diverse and include immigrants. Overall, they have many more Black faculty than predominantly white schools, almost 50% on average, according to the National Academies report.
At Howard, chemistry professor John Harkless says seeing Black scientists who have succeeded helps when students hit hard moments that make them question their path. “I don’t actively show up in class with a big banner saying, ‘Hey, I’m Black,’ ” he says.
But the students see Black faculty, as well as Black chemists in history, as an example. “I’ve been doing this and therefore, there’s no reason associated with you being Black that says you can’t,” he says. “That becomes part of that personal mythology that you tell yourself when P-chem is doing awful things to your feelings or when a synthesis refuses to work.”
Donyiel Hoy, now a biomedical engineering graduate student at the University of Connecticut, went through many of those bad moments after he was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea when he was a chemistry student at Morehouse College.
He felt more comfortable talking to his Black professors about his problems, Hoy says, in part because he didn’t have to worry about how he was perceived. “I never had to really watch the way I spoke,” he says, or feel afraid to share the problems he was having in class or out.
“I had a lot of professors who were willing to make waves for me and help me in as many ways as possible,” Hoy says.
No matter their background, HBCU faculty buy into the idea of supporting and encouraging Black students, McGuire says. “You might use the term ‘Herculean effort’ to describe the commitment of so many of these faculty to their students.”
Part of it is institutional history and pride. But part of it is “an understanding that they’re going to make a demonstrable difference in these kids’ lives,” McGuire says. Many faculty think of it “as the Lord’s work.”
Claville didn’t go to an HBCU herself, but when she became a faculty member at Hampton, she quickly saw how they gave students a safe space to learn while also preparing them to work in a predominantly white world. “If we believe our students can do it, then we will adopt any persona that we need to adopt so that a student ends up believing and accomplishing as well,” she says. HBCUs teach students to “never question their intellectual capability and be willing to exude resilience in the face of difference and opposition.”
“Fundamentally, what is our mission? Our mission is to take the disenfranchised and make them believe.”
Sonya Good, a chemistry professor at Texas Southern University, says that many students at her school aren’t ready for college and run from chemistry.
“They think that all they should be doing is just going to class and making good grades and that’s about it,” Good says.
Students don’t realize they should be doing more, such as undergraduate research. So even though the school has scant resources, Good says, faculty do their best to bring students into their labs during the year and support them in finding summer research experiences at predominantly white schools.
That deliberate guidance through the process of deciding to go to graduate school and choosing where to go is an important support HBCUs provide. Carl Bonner, a chemistry professor at Norfolk State, says that the most impactful thing HBCU professors show is “the fact that we care about them, that we will go the extra mile to help them be prepared for what they will encounter,” Bonner says. “We give them an expanded idea of what’s possible.”
That is in part through pushing research experiences. “If we can get a student to travel more than 100 miles twice to make presentations, they’re going to graduate school,” Bonner says.
Winfield says the rigorous science curriculum at HBCUs is another key to student success. “If you don’t have the rigor of that curriculum, you don’t have those authentic learning experiences through research, you’re not going to be able to get them to where they need to be,” she says. “At the same time, if you don’t have that system that believes in the student, that sees where they can be and models where they can go, you’re not done.”
HBCUs have had clear success supporting Black students on their way to science PhDs. But their faculty also face intense challenges that many people outside of HBCUs don’t understand. Take Arnett as an example.
When she was at Fisk University, Arnett was chair of her department but did not get release time from teaching. She taught 16 credits a semester. She coordinated the chemistry part of a masters-to-PhD bridge program with Vanderbilt. And she ran a research lab with 2–3 graduate students and several undergrads.
“When somebody else looks at your CV, they say, ‘Oh, well, you don’t really have that many publications,” she notes. “So by the end of the day, after I’ve done my administrative duties, dealt with my students, had a meeting or two or three, and then had to come home to my family, there was no time for me to write a paper.”
Teaching four or five classes a semester is common at HBCUs. Because they were born out of discrimination and racism, many are underfunded and underresourced compared with other universities. That underfunding has implications for faculty there who want to apply for grants.
Major research universities almost always have a large support structure built around helping their faculty identify and apply for grants. But most HBCUs have few of those supports. So faculty are on their own to identify grants, write and edit their proposals and budgets, and ensure they are meeting the extensive federal grant requirements. They also don’t have huge public affairs offices letting people know what the faculty are doing in the lab or the classroom.
Morehouse College chemistry professor Juana Mendenhall says HBCU faculty have to work extra hard to show the quality of their science. Despite their lack of supports, faculty have to “be able to disseminate our research on that world pedestal of chemistry and make sure that it’s still stellar.”
Mendenhall thinks HBCU faculty are not always on an even playing field, though. Sometimes peer reviewers don’t understand the challenges HBCU faculty face or have a preconceived notion of the research faculty there can do.
“I wonder sometimes if it was a blind review if things will be written differently,” she says, given some of the comments she gets on grant proposals. But Mendenhall says she has developed a thick skin. “We just keep kicking.”
Last year, Arnett moved from Fisk to Florida A&M, where she is part of a joint engineering program with Florida State University. Because of that connection, she only has to teach one class a semester.
“I felt like I was like Fräulein Maria in the hills just spinning around. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she says.
So far, she’s already written three or four papers that had been lingering for years, plus applied for two or three grants and written a letter of intent for another.
“I’m seeing what my productivity can be, if given the time and opportunity,” she says.
Though the biggest problem for faculty might be time, the bigger problem for HBCUs as institutions is money. Almost all HBCUs rely exclusively on tuition to fund their operations, with only small endowments, says Pearson, the sociologist. That reliance on tuition is especially challenging in the time of COVID-19.
Potentially more devastating are changes in federal rules that several years ago made it harder for students to get grants to go to HBCUs, some of which can be expensive. Because they have small endowments, many HBCUs cannot afford to give those students scholarships instead, Pearson says.
Because of historical discrimination, Black families don’t have access to the same generational wealth as white families, so they often can’t afford to take out loans to help their children attend HBCUs even if they believe in their mission, he says.
“A lot of those families could no longer afford to send their children to HBCUs,” Pearson says. “You’re going to try to send your child where he or she can have some scholarship money.”
At the same time, with a few exceptions, predominantly white schools haven’t improved their ability to keep Black students in science, or even in school. “Historically, a lot of the Black students who went to majority institutions” did not graduate, Pearson says.
If the number of Black students who attend HBCUs continues to decline, the trend could mean a drop in the percentage of Black scientists below their already low numbers, Pearson fears.
“It has tremendous implications for the chemical enterprise if they are trying to diversify.”
To help battle that problem, the National Academies report recommended pushing more meaningful, long-term collaborations between HBCUs and research universities or industry.
“The wind is in their face,” McGuire says. “We think more and better partnerships would help clear away some of that strong head wind and make it easier for graduates to find opportunities, either in postgraduate settings or in the world of work.”
Right now, though, many supports for HBCUs are too small or too superficial to really help. Good from Texas Southern says she regularly gets approached by scientists from research institutions who are thinking about collaborations as a last-minute add on to their grant, seemingly to fulfill a federal requirement.
“Someone emailed me telling me that they needed my biosketch within a matter of days. He didn’t tell me what [the email] was about,” she says. “I didn’t even respond.”
Good wishes scientists would “have more of an open mind and just reach out,” she says. “Let’s sit down. Let’s talk. Let’s have a real conversation. Let’s get to know one another and know the needs of the institution.”
HBCUs are more than just a source of Black students for white institutions, says Bonner from Norfolk State, who has also had researchers applying for grants contact him at the last minute without knowing him or his work. “It’s really easy to recognize something that looks like academic mercantilism,” he says. But accepting those offers doesn’t help the school or the students.
“There’s actual intellectual research going on, funded research” at HBCUs, Bonner says. “Invest in our program and we can work together. We can establish a really strong research program.”
It’s clear that predominantly white institutions have a lot to learn from HBCUs, McGuire says. “To the extent that success with students has to do with cultural competence and awareness, has to do with providing institutional support around soft skills as well as hard ones, the majority institutions stand to benefit greatly from what the faculty at HBCUs are good at doing.”
White institutions have to make that choice to fully invest in diversity, Claville says. “The bottom line is, whatever you believe in, that’s what you invest in,” she says.
Universities and individual researchers have to believe that “Black and brown students are valuable. They come with unique perspectives. They can turn my research upside down. They can add a dimension that I never thought,” Claville says. “Until you embrace that, then you’re going to continue to check a box.”
One example of a successful program is the joint FAMU-FSU engineering school where Arnett now works. Students are admitted to each school separately, but, once they are in, the partnership acts as one school—they could take classes from or work with a professor from either institution. The partnership offers the only chemical engineering PhD at an HBCU.
Professor Jamal Ali has a deep connection to HBCUs—he was born at Howard’s hospital, then went on to get his undergraduate and master’s degrees there. After he got his PhD at Drexel University, he had other offers from predominantly white institutions but chose FAMU.
“You can do excellent research, but you can also have an impact on minority students. I think it’s the best of both worlds,” he says.
Even at the PhD level, Black students want a school where they feel comfortable, Ali says. At FAMU, “there’s a big emphasis on faculty being engaged with students, understanding students,” he says. “I think they want to be in a place with other people that look like them, have similar backgrounds, have similar life experience, and can relate to them.”
Subramanian Ramakrishnan runs an NSF-funded program at the FAMU-FSU engineering school that has recruited 14–15 African American graduate students so far into its engineering PhD program, and HBCUs are among the main places they recruit.
HBCUs “do need a lot of help in terms of their resources,” he says. But any collaborations will be worth it to their partner schools. “There are some really talented students out there.”
McGuire also hopes that the federal government and private philanthropy will take a closer look at funding HBCUs. Support of HBCUs can be a way of trying to reduce stratification in the US by “breaking the cycle of poverty and pushing back against institutional and structural racism.”
Some funders are starting to turn to HBCUs. In July, author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated millions of dollars to five HBCUs, including $40 million to Howard.
Howard professor Harkless hopes the swell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement will encourage more investment in HBCUs. “We’ve had a history as a class of institutions of doing more with less, but I think that strategy only works for so long,” he says.
“You’ve got this reservoir of goodwill. How do you monetize it in a way that gets people to see that” the payoff will be worth it, Harkless says. “We’re going to produce high-quality graduates who have excellent probability of becoming socioeconomically self-sufficient and contributing back to the institution, as well as to society at large.”