Black contributions to STEM fields have always been significant, even if they haven't always been widely acknowledged. The women profiled in the book and movie Hidden Figures, for example, provide a case in point. These talented mathematicians worked at NASA in the 1940s through the 1960s as literal human computers. Their work was vital to the Project Mercury and Apollo missions, although it wasn't celebrated until much more recently.
Given the rampant segregation of the era, it isn't surprising that those women received their training at the Hampton Institute (upgraded to Hampton University in 1984). Hampto is one of the over 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. These institutions, which welcome a diverse selection of students into their bachelor's degree and master's degree programs, continue to play a crucial role in supporting African-American students pursuing STEM careers.
In the US, computer science ranks among the most popular majors among Black students, but only about eight percent of all CS bachelor's degrees go to Black students.
That figure falls further when you look at graduate schools. According to one 2014 survey, only 2.4 percent of computer science master's degree recipients and 1.5 percent of computer science doctorate recipients are Black. HBCUs award 27 percent of the STEM degrees earned by Black students.
While there's clearly more work to be done when it comes to promoting diversity in tech, it's also clear that HBCUs contribute substantially to boosting the number of Black computer scientists and promoting diversity. In this article about the top HBCU computer science programs, we cover:
Black students in computer science and other STEM fields face challenges seldom seen or acknowledged by white students, college and university administrators, and professors. An alarming number of Black high school students graduate from schools that don't offer calculus or physics. Additionally, they may lack access to advanced placement courses or opportunities to learn about STEM fields. HBCUs often provide a bridge that helps students who lack specific prerequisites or need academic help get into college and make it to graduation.
These aren't the only barriers Black students face in higher education. Those who aspire to work in fields like computer science and are accepted into undergraduate programs may be discouraged by the fact that programs don't showcase people of color's achievements. They may be further dissuaded by a dearth of Black faculty or administrators. At private and public HBCUs, Black students see success in action every day in the student body and faculty. The curricula are more likely to acknowledge the significant achievements of Black scientists, engineers, and researchers.
Finally, there are questions of access and opportunity in STEM that we just don't have answers to yet. We don't know all the reasons why African-American students have disproportionately low levels of participation in the sciences. We don't know why there are so few Black STEM PhD holders. And we don't know exactly why HBCUs like Tougaloo College, Tuskegee University, North Carolina Central University, and Norfolk State University produce such a high percentage of African-American graduates in STEM even though these schools represent only three percent of all higher learning institutions in the US. What we do know is that they are obviously doing something right.
AAMU offers both a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and a Master of Science in Computer Science. Both programs look at the hardware and software side of CS. Students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science benefit from top-notch facilities and leading-edge equipment. The program incorporates internships and research experiences, so students graduate with real-world, hands-on experience. Some go on to work for companies and organizations like NASA, Google, SpaceX, and Lockheed Martin.
Undergraduate computer science majors, MSCS students, and DSCS students at Bowie State University benefit from small class sizes, supportive faculty, and the school's partnerships with organizations like the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security. BSU has been designated a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education and is a solid choice for students who want to study the information security side of cyber security. Students can also choose from among artificial intelligence and machine learning and data science specializations. Bowie State is home to a $445,000 Cray supercomputer known as the Sphinx and the Center for Cyber Security and Emerging Technologies (C2ET).
The Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at FSU offers a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, a comp sci minor, and a cyber security minor. The school's Intelligent Systems Laboratory enables students to participate in research related to use-inspired artificial intelligence and geospatial data analytics. The school hosts many clubs and resources for CS students, including the Association for Women in Computing, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Women in Computing Research committee.
Computer science students at Florida A & M University take core courses in programming, data structures, programming languages, computer architecture, and the theoretical foundations of computing. Hands-on work is a big part of FAMU's Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program, which encourages students to take corporate internships during summer sessions and work with faculty on research. In the capstone course, CS majors develop an application for a department, the university, or a corporate client. In 2017, the Department of Computer and Information Sciences was awarded a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support STEM education initiatives.
This HBCU is notable for the fact that its Department of Computer Science has a 98 percent post-graduation employment rate. Hampton University offers all CS students freshmen mentoring, peer tutoring, and one-on-one curriculum advisement. The Information Assurance and Cyber Security Center enables students to participate in educational initiatives related to cyber defense.
Rated the #2 HBCU by US News & World Report, Howard University emphasizes theory and practice in its CS degree programs. The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science offers numerous degree options, including a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering, a Master of Science in Computer Science, and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Computer Science. In the past, Howard University has partnered with Google to help more Blacks succeed in tech.
Students at Morgan State University can enroll in one of four degree pathways: the BS in Computer Science program, the BS in Cloud Computing program, the MS in Bioinformatics program, or the MS in Advanced Computing program. Across programs, courses cover software engineering, cyber security, AI, data science, and robotics. The goal of MSU's computer science program is to prepare students to get good jobs, and to that end, the school's CS department has established partnerships with companies like Google, Facebook, and JP Morgan Chase.
North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University is home to arguably the best HBCU computer science program. According to one Reddit commenter on a thread comparing this school to University of North Carolina at Greensboro: "I can almost guarantee that if you go to A & T and you're not shy about networking, you can find a job. Many of the students have jobs lined up before they even graduate at companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Wells Fargo, and the NSA." That's because computer science students dive deep into niche topics like cyber security, robotics, and bio-inspired supercomputing, and the university nurtures its STEM students with tech-focused networking events, conferences, and initiatives. The school is also home to the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, home to a leading-edge high-performance computing facility.
Students choose the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program at Spelman for the small class sizes, the name recognition, and the fact that graduates of the program are often recruited by tech companies with a presence in Atlanta. Some notable faculty members worked in Big Tech before transitioning into academics, and students frequently land internships at companies like Google, Electronic Arts, and Microsoft.
The Department of Physics, Computer Science and Engineering at Xavier University of Louisiana offers a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems, a dual BSCS/BSCE, and a computer science minor. Students pursuing computer science degrees can also choose a double concentration in computer science and another discipline.
Currently, only a few HBCUs offer online programs in computer science, computer engineering, or related STEM fields—and none delivers online CS degree programs for undergraduate students. Alabama A & M University is one of the few. It offers its computer science master's online in an asynchronous program that requires no on-campus residencies. Morgan University also offers its MS in Advanced Computing online over one year. Distance learners can extend their time in the program by working on a project or conducting research and then writing a thesis, but this isn't required to graduate.
There are just over 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States, and they all have different strengths. There are HBCU MBA programs, HBCU nursing programs, and even physician assistant programs at HBCUs known for their medical schools.
Similarly, every HBCU computer science program brings different strengths to the table. Howard University has a large network of alumni working in STEM fields and partnerships with tech companies like Google. Grambling State University has a strong comp sci department and developed its bachelor's-level cloud computing degree with Amazon. Morehouse College is known for graduating relatively large numbers of computer science PhDs. Spelman College founded the first all-Black, all-female robotics team. North Carolina A&T State University is a DOD Center of Excellence in Autonomy.
What may attract more students than partnerships, clubs, and research centers may simply be the fact that HBCUs graduate more African-American students in computer science than primarily white institutions (PWIs).
One more reason HBCUs enroll more Black students in STEM majors may be that they offer a distinctly different experience. Historically Black colleges and universities tend not to buy into the "survival of the fittest" mentality. Most HBCUs are more willing than PWIs to take chances on low-income and first-generation college students—two groups that often find it hard to get into college, secure financial aid, and graduate. There are fewer cutthroat introductory courses designed to weed out students and more tutoring and mentorship programs. One Gallup study found that Black students feel more supported at HBCUs and received more encouragement from faculty.
Also, representation matters. The percentage of Black faculty at PWIs that grant doctorates is around 4 percent, whereas at HBCUs, 67 percent of faculty members are Black. At HBCUs, students have more access to same-race and same-sex mentors and are less likely to be judged by their skin color.
Finally, HBCUs can be a budget-friendly option. Computer science degree programs can be expensive, but HBCU tuition is about 30 percent lower than that of comparable non-HBCU institutions across programs. North Carolina A & T has a great comp sci program, and it's one of the more affordable schools. For some Black computer science students—and CS students of other backgrounds—historically Black colleges and universities are the only genuinely accessible institutions.
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