HBCUs and Black STEM Student Success

In 2016, the National Science Foundation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities-Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) announced a call for applications for HBCUs to become Broadening Participation Research Centers, with the expectation that those selected would “represent the collective intelligence of HBCU STEM higher education and serve as national hubs for the rigorous study and broad dissemination of the critical pedagogies and culturally sensitive interventions that contribute to the success of HBCUs in educating African American STEM undergraduates” (National Science Foundation 2016). The first such participant is the Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership (CASL), with a mission to “substantially broaden the participation of students who have been marginalized from US STEM higher education” (Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership, n.d.).

CASL intends to use findings from studying HBCUs to generate new knowledge at the intersection of leadership development and efforts to broaden participation in STEM. One of CASL’s innovative and groundbreaking components is the Leadership Development Program that provides emerging HBCU leaders (CASL fellows) with the tools to think deeply about the role HBCUs can play in this work. While many articles in this journal make the case that HBCUs can have a significant role in meeting the nation’s demands for a well-prepared STEM workforce, I would like to emphasize an even greater mission that these historic institutions have been carrying out. They are the institutions that educate Black students in the United States and prepare them for the next step in their careers by acknowledging the links between the lived experiences of Black students with their success as STEM students.

Melvin Hall, Northern Arizona University professor and CASL’s director of strategic initiatives, refers to this role of HBCUs as “cultural context” and calls the HBCU environment “Camelot” (Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership, n.d.). From my own (yet to be published) research, a participant described the HBCU where he studied physics as providing a “dome of security and safety.” In contrast, he recounted that when he attended a predominantly white institution, he constantly needed to be guarded and employ “his body sense,” an act that made him tense, defensive, and unable to listen. As I searched for an understanding of what makes HBCUs successful in educating Black STEM students, I realized that at the core lies the fact that HBCUs let Black students live their best and authentic lives.

We can hardly expect the 102 HBCUs that make up 3 percent of US institutions of higher education and enroll 9 percent of Black students (National Center for Education Statistics 2018) to carry the burden of redressing the marginalization of Black scientists and engineers within the US STEM enterprise. That said, a report by the American Institutes for Research shows that a third of Black STEM PhD recipients earned their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs (Upton and Tanenbaum 2014). HBCUs embody the best practices for educating students who are marginalized in other learning environments, and it is critical that we look to these schools to learn how to best educate all STEM students. The Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership is at the vanguard of contributing to the body of knowledge on how leadership of STEM faculty and administrators is linked to the success of Black students in STEM. CASL acknowledges that leadership does not only happen at the level of deans, provosts, and presidents but with faculty members as leaders in classrooms and labs. The results of the action learning projects presented in this issue of Peer Review range from innovative approaches to fostering the career advancement of faculty (such as increasing research capacity and addressing issues related to tenure, promotion, and career development) to ways that students can learn better (such as course-based research experiences, adaptive learning courseware, mindfulness to reduce math anxiety, and metacognition to support racial equity). Critically, much of the work reflects a realization that, in order to broaden the participation of Black students in STEM, we must first place Black students at the center of what we do as educators.

The work of the CASL fellows, guided by the philosophy of CASL to be at the “Soul of Leadership,” reflects the work of so many HBCU faculty. Guiding frameworks that use the context of HBCUs have been largely missing from the literature on leadership, as well as on STEM undergraduate education reform. I am excited that this issue of Peer Review leads the way in introducing this groundbreaking work to the STEM education community.



Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership. n.d. Accessed May 17, 2019. https://www.advancingstemleadership.net/.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2018. Digest of Education Statistics: 2017. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/.

National Science Foundation. 2016. “Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program Solicitation.” https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2016/nsf16538/nsf16538.htm.

Upton, Rachel, and Courtney Tanenbaum. 2014. “The Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities as Pathway Providers: Institutional Pathways to the STEM Ph.D. Among Black Students.” Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. https://www.air.org/resource/role-historically-black-colleges-and-universities-pathway-providers-institutional-pathways.

Claudia Rankins, Program Director, Historically Black Colleges and Universities-Undergraduate Program and the Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology Program, National Science Foundation

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