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Challenges and Opportunities to Geography Program Development at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

"Most HBCUs are institutions of long standing, having served the African-American community for many generations. Since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act making these institutions 'historically' Black and allowing them to integrate, they now serve a variety of students without forgetting the special needs of the African-American community. Many HBCUs have developed institutional cultures and environments conducive to the success of African Americans in higher education (Clewell, Cosentino de Cohen, and Tsui 2010). While they make up less than three percent of U.S. degree-producing institutions, they consistently graduate around 20 percent of African-American baccalaureates in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and are key contributors to the African-American professoriate (Burrelli and Rapoport 2008; NSF 2011).Predominantly Black Institutions are those that were not necessarily historically established to serve the African-American community but currently enroll at least 40 percent African-American and at least 50 percent low-income or first-generation college students.

Geography and GIS have been steadily disappearing from HBCU catalogs over the past 40 years (Padgett and Crayton 2001; Roach 2001; McKee and Wilson 2004). Although HBCUs have kept pace with other institutions in introducing curricula for GIS, they are lagging in the establishment of full geography programs (Malhotra and Vlahovic 2011). We have observed that, at HBCUs, geography courses are typically housed with political science or history and GIS courses are offered within biology, mathematics, or natural science departments. Geography degree programs basically do not exist at PBIs in the United States, with the sole exception of Chicago State University."

According to data collected by the Association of American Geographers (AAG), only five out of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. offer bachelor’s degrees in 'Geography, GIS, or GeoEd.' It is generally accepted that HBCUs provide the best opportunity to expose African American students to Geography. Unfortunately, the AAG’s recent findings, and those of McKee and Wilson (2004), and ALIGNED Advisory Board Member, Dr. David A. Padgett (Roach, 2001), Geography has been steadily disappearing from HBCU catalogs over the past 40 years. Given the current status, HBCU Geography faculty are struggling to feed the entry point of the Ph.D. pipeline.

Discussed below several significant challenges to attracting students to long-term study in geographical sciences:

  • Elimination of Geography course requirements for teacher licensure in Geography – Due in part to the current economic downturn, several states have dropped the number of geography courses required for teacher licensure. For example, until 2009, the requirement was nine credit hours with at least three in upper-division courses. Today, only successfully passing the Geography PRAXIS exam is required.
  • Lowering of credit hours required for degree programs – Due to students taking much longer than four years to graduate from baccalaureate programs, many states have capped the total number of credit hours for degrees to about 120. In most cases, when hours are cut from majors, electives are eliminated first. At HBCUs without Geography majors, upper-division Geography courses are primarily only offered as electives.
  • Lack of awareness of career options in Geography – Many students, regardless of race or ethnicity arrive at college not realizing that Geography is a stand-alone major, much less a potential career path. At HBCUs, entering students are most likely to have even less exposure to geographic sciences. Also, coupled with a more “job oriented” focus among many Black students, Geography may not garner familiar and proven career tracks such as Engineering, Education, or Nursing. For example, TSU, an HBCU on the verge of celebrating its 100th anniversary, has eliminated the Africana Studies major. While Africana Studies courses remain full and popular, few students choose it as a major, reportedly due to there being no jobs directly tied to the discipline. Thus, it follows that if HBCU students meet Africana Studies career potential with skepticism, then it clearly follows that they would have perhaps even less confidence in the chance that a Geography degree will pay dividends.
  • Lack of Geography faculty and programs at HBCUs – Geography faculty at HBCUs are often “stand alone” instructors, primarily teaching lower-division world regional courses as a service to other programs such as Education or History. At HBCUs with minor programs only, filling upper-division courses is a struggle with more streamlined major programs providing less chances for students to explore electives. Financial limitations may also pose barriers to elective courses of study. An obvious solution is to encourage HBCU faculty to push for the creation of Geography major programs. However, in these tough economic times, HBCUs are more likely to be cutting programs than creating new ones.

One potential growth area is in geospatial sciences. At Tennessee State University, the graduate GIS Certificate Program is relatively successful. Several HBCUs, including TSU, Coppin State University, and Fayetteville State University, have developed new programs in Intelligence Studies, having become of interest in the post 9/11 era. Intelligence studies programs often include new cultural geography and GIS-based courses. Increasing concern about the impacts of climate change offer opportunities for program development in the physical sciences. In any case, given the current status of higher education, the most feasible strategy is to perhaps combine Geography with other areas of study that have more specific and tangible career opportunities such as health science, urban studies, agriculture, or criminal justice.

Other "options to expand geography within HBCUs include cross-listing geography courses with other departments or establishing joint/interdisciplinary degrees with popular or highly relevant disciplines such as business, health sciences, criminal justice, sociology, agriculture, and urban studies (JBHE 2004). Several HBCUs have developed programs in intelligence studies as a result of increased interest post 9/11, including new cultural geography and GIS-based courses. Finding creative ways to link to non-MSI institutions to HBCU and PBI geography programs and geographers through joint research or educational collaborations ... may also help geography faculty and programs make connections or garner the support necessary for new initiatives, in addition to the potential benefit of exposing all participants to more diverse experiences.

Tapping into the long HBCU tradition of community service and the mission of PBIs to serve low-income and first-generation populations could attract students while celebrating the relevant nature of the discipline."

Credits: Dr. David Padgett, Tennessee State University

With excerpts from Patricia Solís, Joy K. Adams, Leslie A. Duram, Susan Hume, Al Kuslikis, Victoria Lawson, Ines M. Miyares, David A. Padgett, and Alexander Ramíırez, Diverse Experiences in Diversity at the Geography Department Scale, Professional Geographer 2013 (forthcoming.)


Burrelli, J., and A. Rapoport. 2008. Role of HBCUs as baccalaureate-origin institutions of black S&E doctorate recipients. InfoBrief: NSF 08-319. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Clewell, B. C., C. Cosentino de Cohen, and L. Tsui. 2010. Capacity building to diversify STEM: Realizing the potential among HBCUs. Washington, DC: Urban Institute. 

JBHE. 2004. For students at black colleges, the business major is king. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 45: 41-43.

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. 2011. Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2011. Special Report NSF 11-309. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. 

Padgett, D., and C. Crayton. 2001. Historically Black College and University (HBCU) geographic information system utilization status. 

Roach, R. 2001. Taking stock of GIS technology at HBCUs. Black Issues in Higher Education, September 13, 2001. 

Malhotra, R., and G. Vlahovic. 2011. GIS educational opportunities at Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States. Southeastern Geographer 51 (3):443–456.

McKee, J. O., and B. M. Wilson. 2004. Geography in Historically Black Colleges/Universities in the Southeast. In The role of the South in the making of American geography: Centennial of the AAG, eds. J. O. Wheeler and S. Brunn. Columbia, MD: Bellwether Publishing.