Although a new federal report credits HBCUs with doing a superior job of graduating more students in the fields of science and technology, higher education leaders says the report is built upon a faulty premise.

“The general population has to deal with and discuss the report very cautiously, because it sends very confusing signals,” said Dr. Alvin Thorton, senior adviser to the president for academic affairs at Howard University, one of the HBCUs referenced in the report. Thorton was referring to a report released recently by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled, “The Educational Effectiveness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

The report found that HBCUs produce a disproportionately high share of African­American students who earn degrees in science, engineering, technology, or mathematics, also known as STEM fields. Specifically, the report states that although only about 20 percent of African­ American college students attend HBCUs, 40 percent of all African­American engineers received their degrees from an HBCU.

However, in seeking to explain why HBCUs produce more Black STEM graduates than other colleges and universities, the commission blamed the problem on the “prevalence of academic mismatch” at non-HBCUs. The phrase “academic mismatch” refers to differences in the overall academic abilities of a student in relation to his or her peers at college.

The problem of “academic mismatch” is not prevalent at HBCUs, the report states, because African-American students at HBCUs are more likely to be educated alongside other students whose academic preparedness is similar, as opposed to students with better academic preparedness.

“African ­American students interested in STEM majors may … particularly wish to
consider attending a college or a university, including an HBCU, at which their academic credentials match those of the typical student so that they avoid experiencing the negative effects of academic mismatch,” the report states.

Thorton says he has a problem with that assertion.“The notion implicitly that some students are better off at HBCUs because HBCUs give academically a better match in terms of preparation than they were at majority-serving schools, I just think that is too compelling of an issue for the commission to have tossed it out there in a cavalier way,” Thorton said. “That to me is not serving the discussion well and that’s the most troubling part of it.”

Thorton said the real reason HBCUs graduate more students in STEM fields is because they provide more support and have more diverse faculty members with whom the students can identify.

He said the Commission should have focused more on what other universities can learn from what HBCUs are doing to support students as opposed to the academic profile of the students themselves. The report did state that researchers should “carefully study the success of HBCUs to learn how other schools can emulate their best practices.”

“That’s the call I would expect the commission to be making,” Thorton said. “Not that we reached the point where it’s preferable for the Black student to be away from what is perceived to be higher-achieving, non-Black students. I think that is a problematic premise.”

Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., also said the report was problematic because it propagates the idea that Black students at HBCUs are less academically prepared. “The way that the media portrays that point does a disservice to HBCUs by portraying them in a light that says that the students are substandard or subpar to majority students or Black students that go to majority institutions,” Espinosa said.

The commission itself was divided over how much credence to give the notion of “academic mismatch” and some members of the commission were critical of the report itself.

Commissioners Michael Yaki and Arlan D. Melendez, for instance, called the report “shamefully tardy,” noting that the report is based on a briefing hearing that took place in May 2006.

“Further, parts of this Report’s conclusions rest upon stale data, some of which … was over a decade old at the time of its initial consideration,” Yaki and Melendez wrote.

Commissioner Gail Heriot, however, rebutted that Yaki and Melendez are ignoring scholars who have found that African-American students do better when they are in the middle or top of the class as opposed to at the bottom of the class at elite mainstream institutions.

Thorton, of Howard University, said the deeper issue for graduating more Black students in STEM fields is providing a solid science education early on.

“For this issue to be addressed, it can’t start with HBCUs,” Dr. Thorton said. “It has to start in the fourth grade with excellent science programs for Black students in urban systems.

“By the time they get to 11th, 12th, grade, it’s really too late.”