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Educational Aspiration and Mentoring the HBCU Student


Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Academy
A National Symposium
November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina


Sarah B. Williams, Professor of Sociology, Prairie View A&M University
Alex D. Colvin, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Prairie View A&M University
Jackie Burns, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Prairie View A&M University

Elizabeth A. Martin, Associate Professor of Social Work, Prairie View A&M University
Cynthia Gary, Instructor of Sociology, Prairie View A&M University
Lee A. McGriggs, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Prairie View A&M University

Higher education has always been, and remains a major route to enhanced occupational status.  As such, increases in educational attainment are correlated with increased income, occupation, prestige, and many other indicators of “success” or “the good life” in the United States. In an earlier study by Jencks, Smith, Acland, Bane, Cohen, Gintis, Heyns, and Michelson (1972) examining the effects of attaining a college education on occupational attainment, the findings indicate that for those who completed a college degree experienced a 49 percent occupational advantage over those who did not.  Additionally, according to the 2000 U.S. Bureau of the Census, college graduates will earn almost 100 percent more income over their life times than those that only received a high school education. With access to higher occupational positions becoming more dependent on educational attainment, college attendance is a key mechanism for success.  Therefore, it is essential to understand the impact that educational aspirations and enrollment in institutions of higher education has on the status attainment process.

Research on the status attainment process in the United States can be traced as far back as 1967 with Blau and Duncan’s seminal piece entitled, The American Occupational Structure.   In their work, they identified several factors thought to contribute to the attainment of positions in the occupational structure.  Of the numerous variables in their research, Blau and Duncan found that, “the son’s educational attainment produced the strongest effects on son’s occupation” (Kerbo, 2006).  In addition, the father’s educational attainment also had a significant effect on the son’s educational attainment and an indirect effect on the attainment of the son’s occupation.  Moreover, Sewell and Hauser (1975) in their research found that socio-psychological variables such as “aspirations” explain about 60 to 80 percent of the relationship between class background and educational attainment.  Earlier studies also support the relationship between aspirations and class background.   Higher-class parents are more likely to provide role models and encourage their children to attend college (Sewell, Haller, & Ohlendorf., 1970).  In another earlier study examining youth subcultures, Sewell (1971) found that both class differences and peer groups influenced educational aspirations.

There has been a steady increase in the enrollment of African American students in educational institutions. It had been reported that in 1960, only 20% of African Americans had completed high school and subsequently moved on to receive additional education.  Currently, more than 78.5% of African Americans graduate from high school.  Despite this increase, only 16.5% of African Americans complete four or more years of college.

The number of African American students enrolled in institutions of higher education has almost doubled.  For instance, in 1980, 1,163,000 African American students were enrolled in all levels of college; by 2001, this number had increased to 2,230,000 (United States Bureau of the Census Statistical Abstract, 2003).  It was also reported that in 2001, African Americans earned 11% of Associate degrees, 8.9% of Bachelors degrees, 8.2% of Master’s degrees, 4.9% of doctoral degrees, and 6.8% of first professional degrees.  Through this examination of data, one may see that although the enrollment of African American students in college has increased, a majority of African American students only obtain Associate of Arts degrees. Therefore, the question remains – how can we transition additional African American students from Associate programs to four year institutions, providing them with a greater opportunity to acquire advanced degrees?

When reviewing the data, the percentage of all African American students enrolled in college who are enrolled at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) mirror the percentage of the total population of African Americans in the United States.  Consequently, only thirteen percent (13%) of all African Americans enrolled in post-secondary institutions are in Historically Black Colleges or Universities (Snyder & Hoffman, 2003).  As a result, HBCUs are important in the awarding of post-secondary degrees.  For instance, nearly 25 percent (23.6%) of all Bachelor’s degrees earned by African American students are at HBCUs.  Of the Baccalaureate degrees earned by African Americans in 2000, the data reveal that 69 percent of the degrees were earned in non-science and non-engineering fields.  Additionally, data revealed that African Americans were far more represented in the social sciences and psychology than in the physical sciencesand engineering.  Moreover, data from 2000 reported that, two percent of African American students receive undergraduate degrees in engineering and less than one percent receives degrees in mathematics, the physical sciences, or agricultural sciences.  Accordingly, HBCUs confer a substantially high percentage of degrees in the sciences than Predominately White Institutions (PWI).


African Americans in Graduate and Post-Baccalaureate Professional Schools The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the last 25 years, minority enrollment in graduate programs increased 167% and enrollment in professional programs grew by 271%, respectfully (Wirt, Choy, Provasnik, Rooney, Sen, & Tobin, 2003).  As such, nearly 20% (19.8) of all first professional degrees were earned at HBCUs (i.e., MSW, JD, MD, PharmD, Vet, and DD degrees) (Snyder & Hoffman, 2003).  Despite this progress, there remains a tremendous drop in the absolute numbers of African American undergraduate degree recipients who go on to post-baccalaureate degree programs.  An intriguing question we would like to address is – why do HBCUs award such a large percentage of degrees received by African American students compared to “predominantly White schools?” Could this be due to the ability of HBCUs to inspire confidence, engender high self-esteem, pride, responsibility, and provide intimate relationships with faculty and other students?

As previously discussed, increased educational attainment is essential for enhanced status of African Americans. Educational attainment has been shown to be positively correlated with educational aspirations. It is reasonable to expect that educational aspirations would be positively correlated with college applications, matriculation, and advanced degree completion. Additionally, educational aspirations are likely to be related to post-baccalaureate program applications, admissions, and enrollment.

Research Methods
This research study examined the educational aspirations of junior and senior level students enrolled in undergraduate programs at one Historically Black College or University (HBCU).  The purpose was to examine students’ aspirations for post baccalaureate education as well as to assess students’ plans for entry into graduate and/or professional schools. The focus groups were composed of male and female, junior and senior level students, in various disciplines at Prairie View A&M University.

The participants were considered to be “successful” students because they had beaten the odds by enrolling in college. Many participants were first generation college students and had advanced to junior or senior college status. Additionally, many students who initially enrolled with these participating students had subsequently withdrawn from college.

For the purpose of this research, a survey entitled, “Survey on Educational and Occupational Aspirations” was developed.  A stratified sample of all senior and junior level courses at the HBCU was obtained. The research was designed to assess the level of educational and occupations aspirations of students enrolled at an HBCU.  Students’ responses were assessed from a variety of questions related to level of educational aspirations and plans.

Data from the research revealed that student participants had relatively high educational aspirations. Fifty-seven percent of respondents reported planning to obtain their master’s degree within five years of graduating. Additionally, seventeen percent reported planning on obtaining a doctoral degree, 10 percent planned on obtaining a law degree, and 10 percent planned upon obtaining a medical degree in the next five years.  Additionally, respondents were asked, “Would you consider applying to an Ivy League College?” Sixty percent of the respondents stated that they would not consider applying to an Ivy League. Students listed a number of reasons for this reticence, which were categorized into economic factors, social factors, racial factors and academic factors. Students’ opinions were also solicited on affirmative action.

Pascarella and Terenzini, (1991) reported that African Americans attending primary White institutions were more likely than those who attended HBCUs to report greater levels of social isolation, alienation, personal dissatisfaction, and overt racism.

Additionally, it was reported that members of minority groups who enroll in PWI post-baccalaureate schools experience feelings of isolation because of the relative lack of other individuals of their race or ethnic group.  Furthermore, some minority students reported feelings of inadequacy about their ability to succeed academically or professionally.  Overcoming social isolation, working with caring mentors, and receiving financial support were also important to African American graduate student success.  Feeling isolated, as well as excluded from participation in faculty research, or not being offered the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant or instructor were also reported to lead to feelings of marginalization.

According to Chandler (1996), the mentoring of minority students is severely lacking.  The mentoring function usually involves interactions between the mentor and protégé which might address career mentoring, provide guidance, advice, information, coaching, visibility, recommendations, and promoting academic and/or career placement in order to further the protégé’s academic and career goals.  The mentoring process often moves beyond strictly academic concerns to provide psycho-social and emotional support, socialization to the norms and values of the profession or educational institution, and enhancement of the confidence and encouragement of the protégé to goal attainment.  In addition, mentors serve as role models for protégés as they pursue their education and careers (Jacobi, 1991).

As the concern about the dearth of African Americans moving on to graduate and professional schools increased, the authors/researchers decided that direct intervention would provide additional students with the opportunity to attend post-secondary programs. Thus, the George R. Ragland Scholars Program was developed.

The Ragland Scholars Program is a minority mentorship and training program that prepares Scholars to enter graduate and professional educational programs in an effort to enhance provisions of culturally relevant and responsive mental health and social services to Texans in urban and rural settings.

The Ragland Scholars Program is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative project between Prairie View A&M University and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, who funded the project. In addition to providing an enhanced academic program in minority mental health, the Scholars Program mentors students throughout the graduate school application process, i.e., when students first express a desire for a graduate degree, through preparation of application materials, visiting diverse graduate schools, entry into graduate school, matching Scholars with mentors, to Scholars’ graduation from graduate and professional schools, and finally through obtaining their first professional positions.

A key element in development of the Ragland Scholars Program is the mentoring of students. In the Scholars program, formal intra- and inter-institutional mentors are assigned to students. The goals of the formal mentoring relationship are to provide mentors who would become personally involved in the students’ quest for academic and career success. Thus, students can more easily become engaged in research collaboration, job placement, professional socialization, and develop increased self confidence as professionals (Chandler, 1996).  Additionally, a great number of Ragland Scholars from Prairie View A&M University enhance their learning through formal academic classes, seminars, graduate school visitations and workshops as a result of their participation in the program.  The recommended involvement between mentor and protégé includes actions such as:

  • Being easily available, including contact by e-mail, office visits, or by home                                   telephone.
  • Having Ragland Scholars attend a graduate class taught by their mentor.
  • Introducing Ragland Scholars to additional graduate faculty within the mentor’s                           program.
  • Accompanying Scholars to professional seminars and conferences.
  • Assisting Ragland Scholars in gaining teaching assistantships.
  • Reading the Scholars’ application materials to ensure that they are completed in a professional manner
  • Discussing job search strategies.
  • Discussing preparation for the admissions test.
  • Critiquing resumes.
  • Any other pertinent activities.

The Scholars are mentored by faculty members at Prairie View in addition to faculty from Our Lady of the Lake University, University of Houston, Baylor University, Southern University, University of Texas at Arlington, Texas A&M University, University of Texas at Austin, Stephen F. Austin University, Southwest Texas State University, and Texas A&M University at Commerce.

At its inception, Prairie View A&M University’s Ragland Scholars Program had 4,954 undergraduate students. Through the efforts of the Scholars program 119 Scholars were mentored with 73 students subsequently being admitted to or/and attended graduate or professional school.  Three of whom went on to pursue Doctoral degrees, with two of the three entering the teaching field, one at Prairie View.


Blau, P. & Duncan, O.D. (1967). The American occupational structure.  New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Chandler, C.(1996).  “Mentoring and women in academia: Reevaluating the traditional model.”  NWSA Journal. Vol. 8 (3) pg. 79-100.

Jacobi, M.(1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research, 61, 505–532

Jencks, C., Smith, M., Acland, H., Bane, M.J., Cohen, D., Gintis, H., Heyns, B., & Michelson, S. (1972).  Inequality: Reassessment of the effect of family and          schooling in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Kerbo, H. R. (2006).  Social stratification and inequality: Class conflict in historical, comparative, and global perspective.  6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Pascarella, E. T. & Terenzini, P.T. (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Sewell, W., Haller, A.O. & Ohlendorf, G.W.  (1970). “The educational and early occupational status attainment process: A replication and revision.”  American Sociological Review.  35: 1014-1027.

Sewell, W. (1971).  “Inequality of opportunity for higher education.”  American Sociological Review.  36: 793-809.

Sewell, W. & Hauser, R. (1975).  Education, occupation, and earnings:  Achievement in the early career.  New York: Academic Press.

Snyder, T.D., & Hoffman, C.H. (2003).  Digest of education statistics, 2002. National Center for Educational Statistics. U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Educational Attainment in the United States. Update, 2000.

U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003

Wirt, J., Choy, S., Provasnik, S., Rooney, P., Sen, A., & Tobin R. (2003). The condition of education 2003.  National Centerfor Educational Statistics. U.S. Department of Education.