Science and Engineering Promotion in HBCUs


According to recent reports and studies, in the United States, a shortage of professionals specializing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields can be observed. Investigations of this problem have found that this situation is also typical of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where federal funding for science and engineering (S&E) fields granted to HBCUs is significantly lower than it is at predominantly white institutions (Darnell, 2012; Sav, 2010). This review of the literature on the problem of funding HBCUs to promote S&E and STEM fields has made it possible to identify some specific areas that are under active discussion in the existing research on the topic. The following themes have been identified: the application of institutional theory, the discussion of the role of HBCUs in supporting S&E, drivers of success and possible barriers, and funding disparities related to HBCUs and their participation in the grant application process.

Institutional Theory

For the context of this research, institutional theory has been selected as a framework to understand how HBCUs address the issue of limited S&E grant productivity. The main idea of the theory is that it explains how institutions change, develop, or remain stable in the context of changing environments and due to the impact of authorities, social norms, and principles (Crawford, 2012; Crawford, 2017). Thus, each institution organizes its structure according to specific guidelines in order to function as an effective social structure, and certain societal values, perceptions, and practices affect an organization’s performance.

At HBCUs, administrators give considerable attention to decreasing the impact of processes associated with institutional pressures on operations. The focus is on guaranteeing education for minority students, including positive changes concerning S&E grant productivity. The institutional theory explains how and why HBCUs adapt to social changes, economic tensions, and a lack of funding to promote policy changes (Arroyo & Gasman, 2014; Crawford, 2017). Still, it is important to note that HBCUs remain highly dependent on their environment as these institutions address the needs of minority students although institutional isomorphism accentuates legitimacy instead of efficiency, and HBCUs facing financial issues can serve as legitimate but inefficient institutions (Crawford, 2012). Therefore, the institutional theory is actively discussed in the secondary literature as an appropriate framework to support the activities of HBCUs in the social, economic, and institutional context of the US.

The Role of HBCUs in Promoting Science and Engineering

Numerous studies affirm and support the idea that HBCUs are extremely important for promoting S&E and STEM fields in the United States, and their role in this process is analyzed in detail in the recent literature. Still, research on S&E grant productivity at HBCUs is limited, and researchers tend to discuss the role of these institutions in supporting S&E and STEM research in general terms. Perna et al. (2009) used a case study approach to determine the particular contribution of HBCUs to preparing African American women to obtain STEM qualifications for their future careers. While focusing on the experience of women studying at Spelman College, they found that HBCUs play a significant role in promoting women in STEM fields. The reason is that African American female students are less isolated and receive more support from peers as the environment of HBCUs is more supportive for minorities (Perna et al., 2009). Furthermore, students receive the academic and psychological support they need because of the cooperative peer culture and structural characteristics of HBCUs, but they still face financial difficulties in developing their research and career.

There is a large number of studies supporting the view that minority students choose to enter HBCUs to receive STEM-related education and develop careers in the S&E area due to such factors as early exposure to these fields, the support of their parents and educators, and a positive experience in science. Additionally, professionals at HBCUs serve as role models for students to develop as researchers and practitioners in STEM fields (Adams, Robinson, Covington, & Talley-Matthews, 2017; Cunningham, Park, & Engle, 2014). Thus, Cunningham et al. (2014) published an issue brief in which they focused on the role of minority-serving institutions in promoting education among the most vulnerable categories of the population. The authors also emphasized certain financial challenges that can be faced by these institutions, including HBCUs, which frequently have a significant impact on research activities.

Recent evidence indicates that HBCUs are important for providing educational opportunities to minority students as they address the mission of guaranteeing civic and social justice for African Americans obtaining higher education. The way for HBCUs to succeed in following this mission in the context of a changing financial landscape is to make use of service-learning pedagogy in order to address financial issues and continue research activities, as has been noted by Patterson, Dunston, and Daniels (2013). Thus, by providing higher education to African American students, HBCUs seem to contribute to promoting racial equality for US citizens in terms of their access to knowledge (Bettez & Suggs, 2012; Jett, 2013; Pluviose, 2017). Therefore, researchers agree that HBCUs significantly contribute to society in terms of promoting STEM and S&E specialists while addressing not only community needs but also national interests.

More recently, further research has been conducted on the role of HBCUs in supporting STEM concerning African American students and young researchers or practitioners. In their quantitative study, Upton and Tanenbaum (2014) found that HBCUs are important for Black STEM Ph.D. recipients because, from 2005 to 2010, one-third of students received their degrees at HBCUs, several HBCUs were reported to be top producers of Black STEM graduates, and the popularity of these institutions among STEM students was high. Additionally, in their review, Adams et al. (2017) examined how HBCUs can contribute to the presence of African American scholars in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). They stated that HBCUs play an important role in educating and producing STEMM scholars. While obtaining an education at HBCUs, students still face institutional and racial barriers because of a lack of community support. However, Arroyo, Palmer, Maramba, and Louis (2017) mentioned research findings that did not support the idea of the effectiveness of HBCUs. They found that these institutions cannot adequately contribute to African American students’ success due to being outdated and suffering from a lack of funding. Thus, more research is still required in this complex field.

Drivers of Success and Obstacles to Receiving Grants and Promoting Research at HBCUs

Previous studies have reported that it is important for researchers in the fields of science and medicine to apply for grants in order to support their investigations. Shavers et al. (2005) noted that researchers at HBCUs need financial and technical support that can be offered by the National Institutes of Health, and it was proposed to organize an expert working group to manage issues related to grants administration while improving the grants review process. Later, Stuart (2012) also claimed that many researchers choose to apply for the National Institutes of Health’s aid, but there are funding disparities, and students from HBCUs rarely receive financial assistance in comparison to non-minority groups. Thus, Stuart (2012) also supported the view that there are certain flaws in the National Institutes of Health’s peer-review process for grants. Other authors have developed these ideas to focus on additional drivers of success and possible barriers in the process.

HBCUs need to receive many grants and contracts to remain stable and guarantee high-quality research from S&E professionals studying and working in these institutions. According to Toldson (2017), if HBCUs can successfully compete for certain grants, financial aid, and funding, they will receive all the required resources to perform research activities, which would be the result of administrators’ contributions to writing effective grants proposals and attracting sponsors. From this perspective, drivers for receiving grants include developing relationships with foundations, sponsors, and agencies, promoting researchers at conferences, and collaboration with other researchers and institutions (Nealy, 2017; Toldson, 2017). Furthermore, it is important to understand the principles of the grant application and review processes to provide the information that is needed.

Barriers include limited opportunities for students and professionals from HBCUs for developing effective relationships with their White colleagues. Additionally, at HBCUs, the staff often demonstrates a lack of experience in managing the grant application process or asking for funding and sponsors’ aid (Toldson, 2017). A large volume of research is related to the barrier created by the unwillingness of foundations to provide funding and assistance to HBCUs because of prejudice and a lack of knowledge about these institutions’ culture and potential (Darnell, 2012; Toldson, 2017). At HBCUs, the process of applying for grants and receiving funding is carried out in the context of intense competition between minority and predominantly white institutions. Answering the question of how it is possible to strengthen HBCUs, Palmer (2010) stated states that institutional changes are needed in such areas as Affirmative Action and the distribution of students across institutions, an increase in the number of HBCUs through state and government initiatives, and an increase in investment in them. Data from several sources provide insight on drivers and obstacles related to the question of grants at HBCUs, but more research is still required.

Funding Disparities at HBCUs in Relation to Grant Productivity

HBCUs face many challenges in questions related to S&E grant productivity because of decreasing federal funding for education at HBCUs, placing the responsibility for payment on students and their families. Sav (2010) stated that, for many years, HBCUs have not been funded equally to predominantly white institutions. Thus, in 1995, only about 17% of state funding was allocated to HBCUs because of fiscal discrimination. The suggestion concerning disparities in funding was later supported by Arnett (2016), who noted that there is a funding mismatch typical for HBCUs that receive limited financial support but serve the needs of students who depend on financial aid. Recently, some HBCUs have adopted certain strategic plans to address the problem of funding, for instance through international partnerships.

More attention should be given to recent research on the problem. According to the data for FY 2016, federal agencies provided $31.6 billion to higher education institutions to support S&E, but the research and development (R&D) share given to HBCUs was only 69% in comparison to the R&D share for high-Hispanic-enrollment institutions (87%). Overall federal obligations to HBCUs decreased by 6%, from $397 million in FY 2015 to $373 million in FY 2016, for 66 HBCUs in the country (Pece, 2018). The data for FY 2017 indicated that federal agencies gave $32.4 billion to higher education institutions to support S&E, demonstrating a 2% rise. However, S&E support provided to HBCUs declined by 17% to $308 million, in addition, to support for R&D, which declined by about 9% (Pece, 2019). Therefore, evidence suggests that HBCUs suffer from a lack of funding as a key barrier to S&E grant productivity.

There are several sources of financial support available for HBCUs. In a policy brief, Gasman (2010) noted that funding for HBCUs depends on such sources as federal funding, state funding, and private funding. It is potentially advantageous for these institutions to develop a fundraising infrastructure and focus on grants while increasing staff. The author also recommended offering training in grant writing for faculty members, educating administrators about the use of federal grants, and promoting partnerships between HBCUs, as was later mentioned by Toldson (2017). According to Toldson’s (2013) summary of other research results with a focus on HBCUs, these institutions can become successful in preparing STEM students. The author concluded that students at HBCUs usually develop positive relationships with the faculty, and they are satisfied with the environment for study. However, only 10% of HBCUs have specific formal programs to attract and support minority students in STEM fields (Toldson, 2013). Among these programs, participants mentioned the initiatives proposed by the National Science Foundation, Upward Bound, and Alliance for Minority Participation.

Much of the existing literature is related to discussing the question of funding from the National Science Foundation for the projects of HBCUs. In a quantitative study, Price (2007) examined how increased funding provided by the National Science Foundation can support economists at HBCUs. It was found that research productivity can significantly increase when financial and institutional support is given by the National Science Foundation. It can be assumed that this principle also applies to STEM fields concerning HBCUs. James and Singer (2016) summarized in their recent study the role of the National Science Foundation’s investments in increasing students’ participation in STEM supporting research practices and in building institutional capacity. Currently, the National Science Foundation is one of the key sources for supporting research in S&E in different institutions, including HBCUs. The portfolio of proposed funding programs expands annually, addressing the interests of different categories of students and researchers, including minorities. In 2016, the organization implemented NSF INCLUDES to support broadening participation in STEM and helped certain institutions cope with barriers to developing research activities (James & Singer, 2016). Other funding-related topics are also discussed in the recent literature.

Thus, the main obstacles to recruiting and supporting students in STEM at HBCUs include funding to engage minority students in research, a lack of formal programs to help students obtain STEM education, and a lack of effective community outreach, as has been noted by researchers. In addition, students at HBCUs also mention such institutional, systematic, and interpersonal barriers and drivers as institutional commitment, budget, scholarships, and faculty diversity (Toldson, 2013). As a result, HBCUs are frequently vulnerable to economic crises, and they often experience financial challenges because of reduced federal and state budget resources to support their work (Patterson et al., 2013). Moreover, Sydnor, Hawkins, and Edwards (2010) studied the relationship between community-based participatory research (CBPR) and HBCUs and found that the funding gap is also typical for CBPR, reflecting the disparity and the focus on less-funded research at HBCUs. Additionally, Whittaker, Montgomery, and Acosta (2015) emphasized the lack of minority students obtaining an education in STEM fields because of financial, educational, social, racial, and personal barriers. They discuss these issues about the financial question and possible drivers and obstacles to receiving grants at HBCUs.

However, in their studies and reviews, researchers have also proposed some steps to overcome disparities. According to Owens, Shelton, Bloom, and Cavil (2012), HBCUs need to develop specific strategies to eliminate constraints associated with the lack of federal funding, staff, and resources to promote STEM research. As a result, administrators at HBCUs can draw on federal and state programs, as well as privately funded programs, to address the shortage of resources (Ortega & Swinton, 2018). It is important to note that administrators and staff at HBCUs also need to receive training on how to write grant applications and build relationships with partners and sponsors.

Gaps in Research

Despite the existence of a large number of studies on the role of HBCUs in developing STEM education for minority students and the active discussion of the funding issue, there are not many relevant recent studies that explain what particular systemic, institutional, and interpersonal drivers can influence successful S&E grant productivity at HBCUs. Only a few researchers have discussed and addressed the problem of funding HBCUs not in general but with the issue of receiving grants (Gasman, 2010; Stuart, 2012; Toldson, 2017). There is a lack of evidence regarding the relevance of drivers of success and barriers to receiving funding and grants that can be directly related to the S&E field instead of focusing on trends in STEM education. From this perspective, previous research does not provide the answer to the problem of determining systemic issues, institutional challenges, and interpersonal factors that can create barriers to S&E grant productivity at HBCUs. Therefore, it is important to conduct additional research in this area to provide administrators at HBCUs with effective recommendations.


There is a large amount of literature on the role of HBCUs in educating STEM and S&E professionals among African Americans. Still, each year, funding for S&E education and research at HBCUs is decreasing significantly, creating additional barriers for students, researchers, and faculty, as has been noted in recent studies and reports. Much of the literature is associated with analyzing the problem of funding at HBCUs and the impact of this situation on the S&E field. However, what is known about drivers of success and potential barriers to S&E grant productivity at HBCUs is not enough to sufficiently promote research in these institutions and increase funding. From this perspective, ongoing research will contribute to addressing this gap in the literature.


  1. Adams, T., Robinson, D., Covington, A., & Talley-Matthews, S. (2017). Fueling the STEMM Pipeline: How historically black colleges and universities improve the presence of African American scholars in STEMM. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 13, 9-25.
  2. Arnett, A. A. (2016). HBCUs hit strategic reset in face of funding mismatch. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 33(1), 6.
  3. Arroyo, A. T., & Gasman, M. (2014). An HBCU-based educational approach for Black college student success: Toward a framework with implications for all institutions. American Journal of Education, 121(1), 57-85.
  4. Arroyo, A. T., Palmer, R. T., Maramba, D. C., & Louis, D. A. (2017). Supporting racially diverse students at HBCUs: A student affairs perspective. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 54(2), 150-162.
  5. Bettez, S. C., & Suggs, V. L. (2012). Centering the educational and social significance of HBCUs: A focus on the educational journeys and thoughts of African American scholars. The Urban Review, 44(3), 303-310.
  6. Crawford, I. I. (2017). HBCUs: Accreditation, governance and survival challenges in an ever-increasing competition for funding and students. Journal of Research Initiatives, 2(3), 1-15.
  7. Crawford, J. (2012). The challenges and successes of department governance: A look at HBCU journalism and mass communications unit administrators. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 5(3), 215-226.
  8. Cunningham, A., Park, E., & Engle, J. (2014). Minority-serving institutions: Doing more with less.
  9. Gasman, M. (2010). Comprehensive funding approaches for historically black colleges and universities.
  10. James, S. M., & Singer, S. R. (2016). From the NSF: The National Science Foundation’s investments in broadening participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education through research and capacity building. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(3), fe7.
  11. Jett, C. C. (2013). HBCUs propel African American male mathematics majors. Journal of African American Studies, 17(2), 189-205.
  12. Nealy, Y. K. A. (2017). An exploration of the factors that contribute to the success of African American professionals in STEM-related careers.
  13. Ortega, A., & Swinton, O. H. (2018). Business cycles and HBCU appropriations. Journal of Economics, Race, and Policy, 1(2-3), 176-195.
  14. Owens, E. W., Shelton, A. J., Bloom, C. M., & Cavil, J. K. (2012). The significance of HBCUs to the production of STEM graduates: Answering the call. Educational Foundations, 26, 33-47.
  15. Palmer, R. (2010). The perceived elimination of Affirmative Action and the strengthening of historically black colleges and universities. Journal of Black Studies, 40(4), 762-776.
  16. Patterson, G. C., Dunston, Y. L., & Daniels, K. N. (2013). Extreme makeover: Preserving the HBCU mission through service learning pedagogy. Journal of African American Studies, 17(2), 154-161.
  17. Pece, C. (2018). Federal science and engineering obligations to academic institutions reach $31.6 billion in FY 2016; Support to HBCUs declines for the second year in a row. Web.
  18. Pece, C. (2019). Federal science and engineering obligations to academic institutions increase 2%; Support to HBCUs declines 17%. Web.
  19. Perna, L., Lundy-Wagner, V., Drezner, N. D., Gasman, M., Yoon, S., Bose, E., & Gary, S. (2009). The contribution of HBCUs to the preparation of African American women for STEM careers: A case study. Research in Higher Education, 50(1), 1-23.
  20. Pluviose, D. (2017). Strengthening black colleges: A discussion with the 2017 John Hope Franklin Awardees. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 34(3), 18.
  21. Price, G. N. (2007). Would increased National Science Foundation research support to economists at historically black college and universities increase their research productivity? The Review of Black Political Economy, 34(1-2), 87-109.
  22. Sav, G. T. (2010). Funding historically black colleges and universities: Progress toward equality? Journal of Education Finance, 35(3), 295-307.
  23. Shavers, V. L., Fagan, P., Lawrence, D., McCaskill-Stevens, W., McDonald, P., Browne, D., McLinden, D., Christian, M., … Trimble, E. (2005). Barriers to racial/ethnic minority application and competition for NIH research funding. Journal of the National Medical Association, 97(8), 1063-1077.
  24. Stuart, R. (2012). Playing Fair?: Minority research institutions call for NIH to address funding disparities. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 29(19), 18-23.
  25. Sydnor, K. D., Hawkins, A. S., & Edwards, L. V. (2010). Expanding research opportunities: Making the argument for the fit between HBCUs and community-based participatory research. The Journal of Negro Education, 79(1), 79-86.
  26. Toldson, I. A. (2013). Historically black colleges and universities can promote leadership and excellence in STEM (Editor’s commentary). The Journal of Negro Education, 82(4), 359-367.
  27. Toldson, I. A. (2017). Drivers and barriers of success for HBCU researchers submitting STEM proposals to the National Science Foundation (Editor’s commentary). The Journal of Negro Education, 86(4), 415-421.
  28. Upton, R., & Tanenbaum, C. (2014). The role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities as pathway providers: Institutional pathways to the STEM PhD. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.
  29. Whittaker, J. A., Montgomery, B. L., & Acosta, V. G. M. (2015). Retention of underrepresented minority faculty: Strategic initiatives for institutional value proposition based on perspectives from a range of academic institutions. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 13(3), A136.