Addressing the Very Low Numbers of African Americans Earning Doctorates in Geography

A study by researchers at Michigan State University found that between 1997 and 2019, 4,918 doctoral degrees were awarded by U.S. universities in the discipline of geography. Only 86 of these doctorates, or 1.64 percent, were awarded to African Americans. In no year between 1997 and 2019 did the number of African Americans earning a doctorate in geography exceed nine. In five of these years, there were either zero or one African American who was awarded a doctorate in geography.

The study found nine research universities that combined did not award one doctorate in geography to any nonwhite student during the entire period. Overall, they awarded 200 doctorates in geography during the 22-year period.

The authors found that the differential awarding of degrees was related to the differential funding by race to support the completion of doctoral degrees. Financial support for Black graduate students in the field is lacking, according to the authors.

Researchers recommend that graduate programs in geography follow a model adopted at Michigan State where at least one nonwhite student is recruited and financially supported each year. To demonstrate that the policy works, in the three years before the policy was passed (2015- 2017), there were three Blacks, two Latinx, and one Native American admitted and funded by the department. Three years after the policy was passed (2018–2020), there were 10 Blacks, three Latinx, and one Native American who were admitted and funded.

The authors believe that this approach can be successfully adapted and applied to other geography departments in the U.S. and that through such actions, racial inequity and differential treatment experienced by nonwhite American citizens in geography doctoral programs may be reduced, if not entirely eliminated.

The full study, “Assessing Changes in the Underrepresentation of Blacks, Latinx/Hispanics, and Native American Doctoral Students in U.S. Geography Programs, and a Model for Change: the Michigan State University Model.” was published on the website of the journal SN Social Sciences. It may be accessed here.

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