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Historically Black colleges can’t solve tech’s diversity problem alone

September 30, 2021, 10:36 AM UTC
Three-quarters of African American STEM graduates did not attend prestigious HBCUs such as Howard or Spelman.
The Washington Post - Getty Images

It has been a record year for funding and interest for the country’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

As a result of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package that President Biden signed in March, roughly 100 Black colleges are set to gain billions of federal dollars this year. Major technology companies have taken a particular interest in the institutions too. Recently, Google announced it was awarding $50 million to 10 HBCUs to help fund scholarships, invest in technical infrastructure, and develop curriculum and career support programs. Many prominent companies in recent months introduced similar initiatives in an attempt to diversify their workforce. Earlier this year, Apple announced it would support HBCUs as part of its $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative.

Given the vast funding disparities that have long existed between our top historically Black colleges and universities and top predominantly white institutions, this level of support is long overdue and much welcomed. However, there is also great risk in having so singular and narrow a focus on these institutions. HBCUs are hardly a silver bullet for addressing the lack of Black talent in the technology industry. They are just part of the solution.

Companies must expand their search to Black graduates from more unexpected places. The lack of diversity in the technology industry is well-documented. Overall, less than five percent of employees at major technology companies are Black, even while nearly nine percent of computer science graduates are Black. Google’s 2020 annual diversity report shows that just 5.5% of its employees are Black. Bolstered by workers in its warehouse and retail locations, Apple reports about nine percent of its workforce is Black–a number that has not budged since 2016 despite the company’s promises.

Following America’s national reckoning on racial justice, companies began to wrestle with the ways in which they have helped prolong and exacerbate the country’s legacy of inequality. They naturally turned to one of the more obvious places to find talent that could help them address the lack of diversity in their ranks: historically Black colleges and universities.

For nearly 200 years, HBCUs have served as havens for Black Americans pursuing higher education. Notable alumni include John Thompson, Microsoft’s first Black chairman of the board, and Rosalind Brewer, the former president and CEO of Sam’s Club, the first woman and African-American to hold a CEO position at one of Walmart’s stores. Today, they continue to graduate an impressively disproportionate number of Black students, accounting for 20% of the country’s Black graduates despite making up just three percent of its colleges and universities. In recent years, some have become bonafide hubs for tech talent. One-quarter of African Americans who graduate with degrees in STEM earn their diploma at an HBCU. It’s understandable that technology companies looking to recruit more Black employees would first turn to these revered institutions and their graduates.

However, most Black students do not attend historically Black colleges and universities. After all, three-quarters of African American graduates with STEM degrees come from non-HBCU institutions. While institutions like North Carolina A&T State University consistently rank among the top producers of Black engineers, so do schools like Clemson University. The top producers of Black computer science graduates include Georgia State University and online institutions like the University of Maryland Global Campus and Western Governors University. Many of these students are often overlooked by tech companies as they try to find work in white-dominated fields without the clout that comes with attending Howard or Spelman.

Just as they are finally recognizing the immense value of historically Black colleges and universities, technology companies should invest in supporting Black students who are not enrolled in HBCUs. Companies and organizations should explore supporting scholarships, funding training and internship opportunities, and recruiting students from the wide array of other institutions that also serve Black students looking to find a career in technology

Historically Black colleges and universities are a great recruiting tool for tech companies for good reason. The recent surge in attention they are receiving is well-deserved, but the technology industry’s great diversity challenge cannot be solved by these institutions alone. If companies are to ever truly diversify their talent pipelines, they must think beyond HBCUs and begin to do more to engage Black students at public universities.

Michael Ellison is the founder and CEO of the non-profit Codepath

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