A photograph accompanying an article on Howard University graduate students Monday carried an incorrect identification. The photo was of Kennita Carter. (Published 10/15/87)
Back in college, where smart kids dreamt of big money, Ricardo Brown watched as students who didn't get into medical school sometimes gave up, taking menial jobs.
"To see those minds undirected to graduate school is very sad," said Brown, now a doctoral candidate in physiology at Howard University. "That's what's happening with a lot of minorities in this country."
Graduate school, the incubator of the country's scholars, is proving to be increasingly weak at attracting America's black students. While high-paying business positions and high-profile professional schools attract ever-more-talented minority students, the country's graduate programs in the arts, humanities and sciences are reporting dramatic declines in the number of blacks they can recruit.
The result, said Johnetta Davis, associate dean of students at Howard's graduate school, is "a grave future for the academy, especially in science and engineering."
"We participate in what very well may be a kind of educational catastrophe in this country," said George Johnson, president of George Mason University in Virginia. "Teaching today is not a terribly attractive profession to highly trained, intelligent people of any race. But certainly if you were black, there are a lot of other areas of society to bring your talents to."
Howard, the country's foremost predominantly black university, is suffering along with the rest of higher education institutions. Historically black schools account for about a quarter of the country's black graduate students; Howard alone awards about one of every six doctorates to black scientists in the United States.
But at Howard, the percentage of foreign students in graduate programs has increased from 35 to 49 in the past nine years, and the size of the graduate school has dropped from 1,800 students to 1,250 in a decade.
Last year, Howard awarded 63 PhDs in all fields, about half of them to black Americans. At that rate, educators expect the already low black representation on the country's faculties to drop even further.
Nationally, only 41 blacks received PhDs in physical sciences in 1985 and only 35 blacks were awarded doctorates in engineering -- each less than 1 percent of the U.S. total. In 1985, all blacks -- American and foreign students combined -- earned 4 percent of the doctorates given out by U.S. institutions, according to the National Research Council.
The number of black students entering graduate school has declined steadily for a decade. And the proportion of black men in that group has dropped more sharply, even in traditionally male-dominated fields such as science and engineering, university figures indicate. Davis said that about 58 percent of Howard's black American graduate students are women.
This fall, Howard has announced several moves designed to turn the tide:The National Science Foundation this month agreed to give Howard $5 million during the next five years to attract top graduate students and faculty by upgrading the university's high-power-electronics research facilities. The Minority Research Center of Excellence will help lure minority students interested in materials science, said Howard's assistant dean for research, George Littleton. The Carnegie Foundation has designated Howard a level-one research university, the only Washington area university and the only predominantly black institution in the country to win the title.
Only 70 universities in the country have reached this top category in the Carnegie classification; the designation means Howard emphasizes research in all fields, awards at least 50 PhDs each year and annually receives at least $33.5 million in federal research financing. Howard has sharply increased its efforts to recruit black Americans. By paying larger stipends, visiting undergraduate colleges and inviting prospective graduate students to Howard to meet with professors, the university attracted 10 percent more applicants last year than in 1985.
However, the number of graduate students who eventually enrolled remained about the same as the previous year. The Reagan administration "has been so insensitive to graduate education," Davis said. "They've made getting a graduate education almost impossible for many Americans, especially the disadvantaged."
Graduate students and administrators say the most important reasons for the decline in black American interest in graduate study are money and competition from business and wealthy, prestigious universities.
Federal financial aid programs have stiffened their requirements, discouraging some students from entering graduate school and "saddling the other with enormous debts," Littleton said. "More and more students are opting to go into business, where the money is an attraction." Indeed, Howard's business school has surpassed the graduate school of arts and sciences in enrollment for the first time.
"Everyone coming out of college in the '80s has faced a tough financial situation," Brown said. "When a minority student is faced with that situation, he might decide not to go to graduate school."
"The complicating factor for us is the increasing effort by majority institutions to recruit the best black students," Littleton said. "It's just like basketball or football -- a large state school can offer very large stipend support. Everyone wants the blue-chip black American student."
Students who do choose Howard seem almost evangelical about graduate study there.
"Someone has to be the professors of the next generation," said Brown, a physiology student who is researching why certain ingredients in alcoholic beverages damage the heart.
"We have a commitment to returning something to our communities, to show younger people that there are alternatives to money. Everything we see in our society is so geared toward capitalism and how much money I can make, what's the quickest way. That's a powerful influence on minority children."
David Long, another physiologist, said Howard and other universities have to reach out to younger blacks, even into early high school, "to let the students know there are alternatives to medical school and big bucks."
"The reality is that kids need more incentives to spend six years in grad school instead of going straight to Wall Street to make $80,000 a year," said Joan Jappa, a molecular genetics student who transferred from Smith College to Howard as an undergraduate after conducting research with a Howard professor.
Those blacks who entered graduate school despite its promise of less pay and less glamor often have strong idealistic strains.
Denise Jones, a clinical psychologist studying people's physical response to bigoted material, said she chose Howard because professors recruited her and because she wants to work in a minority community.
Kennita Carter, who is working toward a doctorate in pharmacology, said she had noticed that many of the doctors she met at inner-city hospitals around the country were Howard graduates. "That really impressed me, that all these people were functioning almost as missionaries," she said.
Black Americans in Howard's graduate programs sometimes find themselves in seminars dominated by African and Caribbean students. Although Howard has long been a mecca for Third World students, it is also a constant reminder of the paucity of black Americans in the school.
"There's not much to be said in favor of what's happening in this country," Brown said. "We have a real mission with young minorities."