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Look to HBCUs, not just flagship schools, to diversify professional talent pools | COMMENTARY

A student is greeted by David Wilson, right, President of Morgan State University, on his first day as a freshman industrial engineering major in this 2015 photo. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)
A student is greeted by David Wilson, right, President of Morgan State University, on his first day as a freshman industrial engineering major in this 2015 photo. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun) (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

A recent Hechinger Report highlighted the persistent disparity between coveted admission to select state-supported flagship universities and the percentage of Black and Latinx high school graduates in those states. Admission to a flagship state university purportedly enhances career success opportunities based on prestige of the university as well as extraordinary educational opportunities both curricular and extracurricular available on these campuses. In Maryland at the College Park campus, the disparity was undeniably evident, a 24% difference between African American admission and African American high school graduation. Why is it critical to erase this disparity?

Maryland is unique in its racial educational history. While not segregated by law, it was segregated de jure, having established separate and unequal educational systems, the vestiges of which exist to this day. Most obvious is the persistent stigma of perceived inferiority associated with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and unequal state support of programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels in Maryland’s HBCUs when compared with traditionally white institutions.

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Focusing on two programs that exist at the flagship and an HBCU allows for not exactly an equal comparison, but at least a plausible comparison. Civil engineering and electrical engineering are undergraduate programs available at College Park, the flagship, and at Morgan State University, an HBCU. Both are accredited by the disciplines’ accrediting agency. Using institutional data and allowing for a six-year time to graduation, I examined entering 2013 and 2014 student cohorts to those disciplines.

A total of four Black students entered civil engineering in those years and all graduated as civil engineers at College Park. In comparison, 67 Black students entered the civil engineering program at Morgan State in those same years, and 30 graduated. Which program more effectively enhanced African American participation in the profession in the state? Even if the 24% disparity was eliminated completely and all admitted graduated, the addition to the pool of Black civil engineers in Maryland would be minimal at College Park. Enhancing the graduation rate of civil engineering students at Morgan State would offer the most effective strategy to furnish Black civil engineering expertise to the state.

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Looking at the electrical engineering undergraduate program at College Park for the 2013 and 2014 cohorts, six Black students were admitted and all graduated within six years. At Morgan State for those same cohorts, 74 were admitted and 30 graduated within six years. Again, enhancing the admission rate at College Park to eliminate the disparity would add minimally to the pool of Black electrical engineers in Maryland. Enhancing the graduation rate at Morgan would be the most effective strategy to obtain that goal.

The achievement of equity in our society takes different paths, and exploring the cost and benefits necessitates a complete picture involving economic, political and social/psychological considerations. Diminishing or even eliminating the stigma associated with all but the most competitive universities, including minority-serving institutions, is certainly at the top of the list. But a history of educational segregation can’t be easily erased. African American high school graduates and their families as well as other minority graduates, soon to become the majority not only in Maryland but throughout the U.S., will have to decide how probable it is that their potential college student will gain admission as a civil or electrical engineering student and then graduate from their chosen university.

What structural changes within a university, curricular, cocurricular and extracurricular, will enhance graduation prospects as well as connect graduates to their chosen careers? The recent virtual educational experiences during the pandemic point to possible techniques never before considered and now proven plausible. Partnerships with universities within and even outside the state offering education in high-demand disciplines are now more readily possible with online programs, the student fulfilling basic course requirement at the home university and then completing degree requirements at the receiving institution in which the discipline already exists. There is no need for the financial burden of program duplication.

Certainly, erasing disparity is a goal in flagship admissions. However, to attain equity in representation in a profession or discipline, additional pathways should be explored, and just a few have been suggested. It is inconceivable that we sacrifice the potential talent and cultural experiences of what will be the major portion of our population by stubbornly adhering to both bad educational practices and values, as well as ignoring new educational techniques. To continue to do so perpetuates inequity and stifles the entrepreneurial spirit that has fueled opportunities for success in our society.

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Carrol Perrino (carrol.perrino@morgan.edu) is professor emeritus at Morgan State University.

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