The Need for HBCUs in the STEM Pipeline

The Failure to Quell Racism and Racialized Experiences Supports the Need to Maintain and Sustain HBCUs in the United States 

Note: This introductory article is the first one in a series of articles on HBCUs.

By: Jacqueline Brannon-Giles, Resident Professor, Houston Community College Central Campus, Adjunct Professor Texas Southern University, @JackieBGiles

Consultants: Willie Taylor, PhD; Roderick Holmes, PhD

“Mathematicians are old White men. You would never fit in. . . . And Gladis, I mean that as a compliment.” -Comments directed to an African American female participant [student] by a sixth-grade science teacher 

The affective climate in the United States is morphing. The issues that plagued my generation of African Americans, such as overt racism and lack of diversity, seem to be re-emerging in my senior years.  CNN and other media have reported an increase in racist and racialized experiences in America. I believe that this only highlights the continued need for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  Statistics indicate that women and minorities continue to be under-represented in STEM professions. The reasons for this are complex but warrant intentional discussion in all spaces that contemplate the development and future of our field.  The need for welcoming environments is paramount to increase the presence of women and African Americans in the pipeline to obtain degrees in STEM, especially in mathematics and engineering.

Diversity in mathematics illustrated at the 2019 National Association of Mathematicians Midwest/Southwest Regional Faculty Conference on Research and Teaching Excellence (FCRTE) hosted at Texas Southern University, an HBCU in Houston, Texas.

Diversity in mathematics illustrated at the 2019 National Association of Mathematicians Midwest/Southwest Regional Faculty Conference on Research and Teaching Excellence (FCRTE) hosted at Texas Southern University, an HBCU in Houston, Texas.

In the past, many colleges and universities did not welcome women and people of color. When I was studying in a doctoral mathematics program in Texas, a professor on my committee asked, “What are you going to do with all of this mathematics?” I answered, “I will teach people who others are unwilling to teach, and go places others are unwilling to go.”  My teaching philosophy has historical roots. At a time when institutions were unwilling to teach African Americans, HBCUs were founded to serve and educate the African American community. The first historically black university, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was funded by Quaker Philanthropist Richard Humphreys in 1837. The numbers of such institutions have grown substantially since then and today they educate students from all backgrounds with an emphasis on those from the African diaspora. In the 1930s, there were 121 HBCUs and 102 by 2017. 

“Really? Wow! I didn’t think you would be able to answer a question like that! And no one helped you?” -Comment from an engineering professor directed to an African American female participant

Successful attempts to increase the number of Black STEM professionals have rested on the cultural, academic climate, and welcoming environment in HBCUs and HBCUs remain a key pipeline into STEM fields.

Twenty five percent of African American graduates with STEM degrees come from HBCUs. HBCUs graduated 46 percent of black women who earned degrees in STEM disciplines between 1995 and 2004. Eight HBCUs were among the top 20 institutions to award the most Science & Engineering bachelor’s degrees to black graduates from 2008-2012. HBCUs are the institution of origin among almost 30 percent of black graduates of science and engineering doctorate programs.” 


HBCUs, like many tertiary institutions across the country, are facing various challenges, but it is imperative that the existing HBCUs be maintained and sustained. Several HBCUs have historically been major contributors to producing mathematics and engineering professionals and new legislation has inspired a need for more students to attain graduate degrees and credits in mathematics. Yet some graduate mathematics programs have not been operational for years. Several HBCUs are working diligently to fully reinstate their graduate mathematics programs. 

The failure to quell racism and racialized experiences supports the need to maintain and sustain HBCUs in the United States. There continues to be a need for HBCUs to contribute to the STEM pipeline. 

Call to Action for Readers: What can readers do to support HBCUs?

  • Invite faculty and students from HBCUs to present their research at conferences and colloquia.

  • Learn more about the history and current role of HBCUs. 

  • Attend a conference at an HBCU - for example, the recent TPSE conference was held at Morehouse College. Attend future NAM conferences hosted by HBCUs.


Dr. Jacqueline Brannon-Giles is a Resident Professor at Houston Community College, Central Campus and an Adjunct Professor at Texas Southern University. Learn more about her and her work.