Increasing the Number of African American PhDs in
the Sciences and Engineering
A Strengths-Based Approach
Kenneth I. Maton and Freeman A. Hrabowski III
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the per-
centage of African American students who receive PhDs in
natural science, technology, engineering, or mathematics
(STEM) fields remains disappointingly low. A multifaceted,
strengths-based approach to intervention and research that
holds great promise for increasing the number of African
American students who achieve at the highest levels aca-
demically is described. This work began in 1988 with the
development of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program for un-
dergraduate minority STEM majors at the University of
Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). If current PhD re-
ceipt rates of program graduates continue, UMBC will in
all likelihood become the leading predominantly White
baccalaureate-origin university for Black STEM PhDs in
the nation. The program is described and outcome and
process findings from its ongoing evaluation are high-
lighted. The parenting practices that helped these youths to
overcome the odds and achieve at the highest levels prior
to coming to college are also examined.
many challenges remain. America has seen a number of
highly visible anecdotal “firsts” among high-achieving Af-
rican Americans (e.g., a secretary of state, chief executive
officers of Fortune 500 companies, a national security
advisor, an ivy league university president), and the num-
ber and percentage of Black college graduates have in-
creased substantially since 1954. Notwithstanding this
progress, one continuing and major challenge is the under-
representation of African Americans among leading pro-
fessionals in various sectors of society, including health
care professionals, university professors, and research sci-
entists (e.g., Barton, 2004; Cole & Barber, 2003; Wilson,
2000). The underrepresentation within critical leadership
groups is not only socially unjust but detrimental to soci-
ety’s long-term vitality. Increasingly, the pathway to en-
hanced representation in most leadership areas is through
higher education, including graduate school. This is clearly
the case in terms of increasing the number of African
American scientists, the focus of the current article.
he Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme
Court decision was a transforming moment in Amer-
ican society. Many positive benefits followed, and
In the early 1950s, prior to the Supreme Court deci-
sion, only 139 Blacks with doctoral degrees of any kind
were in the workforce. During the next five years, the
number increased to 277, and by 1965–1969, to 586
(Blackwell, 1987). In 1975, when the government began
keeping doctoral receipt statistics, African Americans re-
ceived 3.7% of the PhDs granted to U.S. citizens and
permanent residents. By 2000, the percentage had in-
creased only to 5.8%, far below the 12.9% of the U.S.
population who were African American. The underrepre-
sentation in natural science (physical and biological sci-
ences), technology (computer science), engineering, and
mathematics (STEM) fields is even more severe. In 1975,
African Americans received 1.2% of the STEM PhDs; in
2000, the percentage had increased only to 2.9% (this
excludes psychology and social sciences). In 2000, only 14
African Americans earned doctorates in mathematics, 18 in
computer science, 62 in all the physical sciences, 81 in all
engineering fields, and 118 in the biological sciences (Na-
tional Science Foundation, 2000, 2003).
Although a relatively high proportion of African
American students enter college with the intention to major
in STEM fields, relatively few graduate with STEM majors
(Brown, 2000; May & Chubin, 2003). Included among
those who abandon science majors and underperform in
science and quantitative courses are African American
students with high scholastic aptitude test (SAT) scores,
impressive high school grade point averages (GPAs), and
success in high school honors math and science courses
(Grandy, 1998; Ramist, Lewis, & McCamley-Jenkins,
1994). African American students with strong academic
credentials who underperform provide evidence that factors
other than precollegiate preparation and native ability work
We are indebted to the team of graduate and undergraduate research
assistants who have contributed to this research over the years and to the
staff and students of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. We are apprecia-
tive of the feedback received from Daryl Chubin, Edmund Gordon,
Patricia Ga ´ndara, and Keith Humphreys.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ken-
neth I. Maton, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, Bal-
timore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250, or to Freeman
A. Hrabowski III, Office of the President, University of Maryland, Bal-
timore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250. E-mail:
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
547 September 2004 ● American Psychologist
Copyright 2004 by the American Psychological Association 0003-066X/04/$12.00
Vol. 59, No. 6, 547–556 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.59.6.547
to depress minority achievement and persistence (Bowen &
Bok, 1998; Ga ´ndara & Maxwell-Jolly, 1999; Wilson,
2000). These factors include academic and cultural isola-
tion, motivation and performance vulnerability in the face
of negative stereotypes and low expectations, peers who
are not supportive of academic success, and perceived and
actual discrimination (Allen, 1992; Grandy, 1998; Nettles,
1988; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).
Furthermore, even among those who persist and grad-
uate with science majors, disproportionately few proceed to
PhD programs in the sciences and engineering (Building
Engineering and Science Talent [BEST], 2004). In part,
this may reflect concerns about financial debt, inadequate
advising, and lack of exposure to research. It may also
reflect evolving career interests and inadequate perfor-
mance in critical science courses (Brazziel & Brazziel,
2001; Brown, 2000). To reverse this trend, colleges and
universities will need to intervene strategically to increase
the number of minority students who persist in science
majors, achieve at high levels, and proceed into PhD grad-
uate and professional programs. In this article we describe
the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a nationally recognized
model of an intervention program developed to achieve
these goals (BEST, 2004), and we present the results to
date of our process and outcome evaluation of the program.
Similarly, to increase the numbers of well-prepared
minority students, school systems and parents will need to
increase their efforts to strengthen the academic prepara-
tion of students in the precollege years. The precollege
ethnic achievement gap is alarmingly large. Of special
note, the gap between Blacks and Whites is even greater
between students from middle-income families with col-
lege-educated parents than between those in households of
lower socioeconomic status (Miller, 2000; Thernstrom &
Thernstrom, 2003). Furthermore, science and mathematics
are two of the areas of greatest disparity, beginning in the
elementary school years and continuing through high
school. To increase the pool of high-achieving minority
students entering STEM fields in college, it is critical that
both schools and parents address this issue, including a
focus on students with high levels of aptitude (National
Task Force on Minority Achievement, 1999; Thernstrom &
Thernstrom, 2003). Following discussion of the Meyerhoff
Program, we describe our research focused on how the
parents of the Meyerhoff students raised them to overcome
the odds and excel academically. The qualitative method-
ology employed allows a rich depiction of student path-
ways to success.
The work we report here has consistently been guided
by a strengths-based model. That is, the Meyerhoff Schol-
ars Program does not focus on remediating deficiencies, the
hallmark of a deficits-based approach (cf. Ford, 2002;
Maton, Schellenbach, Leadbeater, & Solarz, 2004). In-
stead, the program builds on the existing strengths of
talented Black youth and transforms their academic and
social environment. Both our program evaluation research
and our descriptive research on parenting practices high-
light factors that lead to academic success among Black
youth. We assume that African American students have the
potential to achieve outstanding academic success given
high expectations and the proper environmental support.
Furthermore, through extensive efforts to disseminate our
work to policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents,
and students, we are highlighting the positive academic
potential of Black youth and countering the negative ste-
reotypical images that too often dominate public attention.
Enhancing African American College
Students’ Success in the Sciences
We begin with a brief review of factors that research
indicates contribute to the success of minority college
students in STEM disciplines. Next, we describe the Mey-
erhoff Scholars Program, designed to address each of these
factors so as to enhance the academic success of African
American STEM students at the University of Maryland,
Baltimore County (UMBC). Finally, we summarize the
results of our ongoing research into the effectiveness of the
Factors That Contribute to College Students’
Success in the Sciences
Four sets of factors appear necessary to enhance minority
students’ success in the sciences. We discuss these briefly
here (see also Maton, Hrabowski, & Schmitt, 2000).
demic and social integration appear critical to the success
of African American STEM majors, including highly able
students. Black students are more likely than White and
Asian students to experience academic and social isolation
on majority-White campuses and in science majors (Cole &
Barber, 2003; Nettles, 1988; Treisman, 1992). Faculty con-
tact outside the classroom and mentoring relationships with
548September 2004 ● American Psychologist
faculty, including with minority faculty when possible, can
decrease academic isolation and contribute to positive out-
comes (Allen, 1992; McHenry, 1997). Furthermore, a crit-
ical mass of highly able Black peers can enhance academic
and social support and reduce perceptions of racism—
contributing to STEM persistence and success (Fries-Britt,
2000; Ga ´ndara & Maxwell-Jolly, 1999).
Knowledge and skill development.
tery of the subject matter and development of a number of
critical skills using proven methods are essential for student
confidence and success. For example, involvement in peer
study groups has been shown to result in enhanced techni-
cal knowledge mastery and course performance for STEM
minority students (Bonsangue & Drew, 1995; Treisman,
1992). Furthermore, strong study habits, time-management
skills, analytic problem-solving capacity, and the willing-
ness to use available university resources have been linked
to positive outcomes (Ga ´ndara & Maxwell-Jolly, 1999;
Gordon & Bridglass, 2004).
Support and motivation.
tion represent a third set of factors linked to minority
student success in STEM majors. Financial aid continues to
be one of the cornerstones of support; it is difficult to
succeed in these majors if the student has to worry about
expenses or has to work (outside of STEM) to pay bills.
Because of the rigor of STEM courses and the attractive-
ness of other majors, additional supportive and motiva-
tional resources are necessary. These include high faculty
expectations, hands-on research experience, academically
supportive friendship networks, involvement with faculty
or staff, tutoring, and emotional support during times of
stress and difficulty (Grandy, 1998; May & Chubin, 2003;
Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).
Monitoring and advising.
ing and advising can help STEM students make wise aca-
Support and motiva-
demic decisions in selecting course work, preparing for
graduate study, and preventing or countering the influence
of academic or personal problems. Consistent monitoring
can help ensure regular assessment of a student’s academic
and social situation and provide early warning signs each
semester of emerging problems. Advising and feedback
can provide students with valuable input about their
strengths, weaknesses, and decision options. Taken to-
gether, personalized monitoring and advising can help en-
sure that students do not fall short because of inadequate
counsel and support (Ga ´ndara & Maxwell-Jolly, 1999;
Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).
The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC
The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC was developed
in 1988 in response to the low levels of performance of
well-qualified African American STEM majors. Baltimore
philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff provided initial
program funding. The program developers, led by UMBC’s
then vice provost (and since 1992 UMBC’s president),1
sought to develop a comprehensive, multicomponent pro-
gram that addressed the broad range of factors linked to
minority student success described above. In 1996, the
program was opened to non–African American students
with an interest in the advancement of minorities in STEM
fields. Currently, between 50 and 65 Meyerhoff students
are selected each year (depending on available funding);
the majority are African Americans. The program is situ-
ated on a campus with a diverse student population (34%
minority), with more than half of the undergraduates and
60% of the doctoral students pursuing STEM degrees. The
Meyerhoff Scholars Program incorporates 14 different
components, briefly described here (for a more detailed
description, see Gordon & Bridglass, 2004).
The Meyerhoff Program provides
students with a comprehensive financial package including,
in many cases, tuition, books, and room and board. This
support is contingent upon maintaining a B average in a
The top 100–150 applicants and
their families attend one of the two recruitment weekends
on the campus.
Summer Bridge Program.
dents attend a mandatory Summer Bridge Program before
the beginning of the freshman year and take courses in
math, science, and African American studies. They also
participate in STEM-related cocurricular activities and at-
tend social and cultural events.
Group study is strongly and con-
sistently encouraged by the program staff, as study groups
are viewed as an important aspect of success in STEM
Program values include sup-
port for academic achievement, seeking help from a variety
of sources, peer supportiveness, high academic goals (with
1The president of UMBC is Freeman A. Hrabowksi III, one of the
authors of this article.
549September 2004 ● American Psychologist
emphasis on PhD attainment and research careers), and
giving back to the community.
provides a familylike social and academic support system
for students. Students live in the same residence hall during
their first year and are required to live on campus during
Personal advising and counseling.
program employs full-time advisors who monitor and sup-
port students on a regular basis. Staff focus not only on
academic planning and performance but also on any per-
sonal problems students may have.
The program staff strongly encourages
Meyerhoff students to either tutor others or be tutored to
maximize academic achievement (i.e., to get As in difficult
Summer research internships.
participates in multiple summer research internships at
leading sites around the country, as well as at some inter-
chairs and faculty are involved in the recruitment and
selection phases of the program. Many faculty provide
opportunities for student lab experience during the aca-
demic year to complement summer research internships.
Program is supported at all levels of the university, includ-
ing ardent support from the president (the program co-
Each student is paired with a mentor
who is in a science profession.
aged to take part in a community service activity, which
often involves volunteer work with at-risk youth in Balti-
social events and kept advised of their child’s progress.
The Meyerhoff Program
Key STEM department
All students are encour-
Parents are included in
African American Students’ Success in the
Meyerhoff Scholars Program: Outcome
The current research focuses on Meyerhoff students who
are African American. Our most recently published out-
comes, encompassing the first four (1989–1992) entering
program cohorts, indicated that the Meyerhoff students
were significantly more likely than two comparison sam-
ples to graduate in STEM majors and attend STEM grad-
uate schools (Maton et al., 2000). One comparison sample
consisted of African American students who declined the
offer to enter the program and began STEM course work at
another university (the “declined” sample). The second
included comparably talented African American STEM
majors attending UMBC before the program existed (the
“historical” sample). Whereas the students in the Black
historical sample achieved significantly lower science
GPAs than their Caucasian and Asian peers, Meyerhoff
students achieved comparable or higher science GPAs than
their Caucasian and Asian peers.
Our most recent evaluation data encompass the first 10
cohorts (entering 1989–1998) of African American Mey-
erhoff and declined students (Maton & Hrabowski, 2004).
The declined students primarily attended Tier 1 and Tier 2
undergraduate institutions. The Meyerhoff students had
comparable math SAT scores (means of 645 and 649,
respectively) and significantly (statistically) lower verbal
SAT scores (573 and 605, respectively) and high school
GPAs (3.62 and 3.71, respectively; the weighting of ad-
vanced placement/honors courses varied across high
The percentage of Meyerhoff students who had grad-
uated from or were currently attending STEM PhD or
MD/PhD programs (29.1%; n ? 86) was 5.3 times greater
than the percentage of declined students (5.5%; n ? 8), a
dramatic and statistically significant difference (covariates
controlled). An additional 41.9% of Meyerhoff students
(n ? 124) had graduated from or were currently enrolled in
medical school or STEM professional or master’s pro-
grams, compared with 50.7% of declined students (n ?
74). Finally, 29.1% (n ? 86) of the Meyerhoff students did
not enter STEM graduate or medical school programs,
compared with 43.8% (n ? 64) of the declined students.
Of note, the percentage of Meyerhoff students attend-
ing PhD programs has increased dramatically in recent
years. Among the first four student cohorts (entering 1989–
1992), 18.3% (n ? 19) graduated from or are currently
attending STEM PhD (or MD/PhD) programs. For the next
three cohorts (1993–1995), the percentage increased
slightly to 23.3% (n ? 27). However, the percentage more
than doubled, to 52.6% (n ? 40), for the three most recent
cohorts (1996–1998). (Less time to drop out is unlikely to
be the primary explanation of the dramatic increase.)
Five Meyerhoff students received PhDs between 2000
and 2002; an additional 10 students received their PhDs in
2003. The 1989–1992 entering cohorts of Meyerhoff stu-
dents accounted for 13 of these PhDs. This represents a
PhD completion rate to date of 52% for the 25 students
from these cohorts who entered PhD programs (slightly
above the reported national average of 50% for PhD stu-
dents; Lovitts, 2001). Taking 52% as the estimated PhD
completion rate for the 70 students who entered PhD pro-
grams from the 1993–1998 Meyerhoff cohorts, at least 36
PhD recipients can be expected from these six cohorts, an
average of 6 students per cohort.
To place this latter number in context, if six Meyer-
hoff students from these cohorts receive their STEM PhD
over each of the next five years, UMBC would likely
become one of the top 10 baccalaureate-origin universities
for Black STEM PhD recipients in the nation (cf. National
Science Foundation, 2004). Furthermore, if the total of 10
PhDs received in 2003 by Meyerhoff students is main-
tained through 2007, UMBC would likely become the
leading predominantly White baccalaureate-origin institu-
tion of Black STEM PhDs.
Process Evaluation Findings
Surveys and interviews have been administered periodi-
cally to assess student and faculty perspectives on the
550September 2004 ● American Psychologist
program (Maton et al., 2000). Meyerhoff and declined
students also recently completed Supports and Stresses
scales. The Supports scale contains 15 items (? ? .83),
each rated on a 5-point scale (1 ? not at all helpful, 5 ?
very helpful). The Stresses scale contains 12 items (? ?
.76), also rated on 5-point scales (1 ? not at all stressful,
5 ? very stressful). Meyerhoff students perceived signifi-
cantly more support (3.7 vs. 3.3) and less stress (2.7 vs. 2.9)
than declined students. Means on specific items are re-
Analysis of the process evaluation data reveals five
factors that appear especially important: program commu-
nity, financial support, program staff, research internships
and mentors, and campus academic environment. Each is
briefly summarized here.
erhoff Program community has consistently been rated by
students as a key program component (mean rating across
four administrations ? 4.2 on a 5-point scale). Study
groups, an aspect of program community, were viewed as
significantly more helpful by Meyerhoff students (4.2) than
by declined students (3.6). Meyerhoff students also rated
isolation from other minority students as a significantly
lower source of stress (1.4) than did declined students (1.6).
Of the students interviewed over the years, 85% described
program community as key to their success, as revealed in
the following interview excerpt:
Being part of the Mey-
Number one in my book is the support. Having other smart,
talented African Americans around you at all times is an asset. In
high school I didn’t have that.
rated program component is financial support (M ? 4.4).
Meyerhoff students rated financial support as significantly
more helpful (4.7) than did declined students (4.0). Mey-
erhoff students rated finding enough time to study—
perhaps linked to financial support—as significantly less a
source of stress (3.1) than did declined students (3.6). In
interviews, financial aid was often described as facilitating
sustained academic focus.
Meyerhoff Program staff.
been consistently identified by students as central to their
academic success (mean rating ? 4.2). Meyerhoff students
rated the academic advising they received as significantly
more helpful (3.9) than did the declined students (3.1), as
well as the personal counseling received from staff or
faculty (3.7 vs. 3.1, respectively). In interviews, students
characterized the program staff as encouraging, supportive,
and concerned with both their personal and academic lives.
A representative quote makes the point:
Another consistently highly
Program staff have
Meyerhoff Program staff will tell you if you’re not doing
well. . . . If you have a problem, they will listen to it. They’ll push
you to get good grades, and if you get good grades, you will be
Research internships and mentors.
mer research internships were consistently viewed by stu-
dents as important contributors to their success (M ? 4.2)
and received significantly more positive ratings from Mey-
erhoff (4.2) than from declined (3.7) students. In the inter-
views, a number of Meyerhoff students indicated that these
experiences have contributed to their desire to pursue the
PhD and provided them access to leading researchers.
Campus academic environment.
dents interviewed spoke positively about the campus aca-
demic environment, including relationships with faculty.
Furthermore, the STEM faculty interviewed reported that
their perception of the capability of African American
students has been greatly influenced by the Meyerhoff
students. Meyerhoff students, compared with students in
the declined sample, reported significantly lower levels of
stress related to perceived fairness of faculty (2.1 and 2.5,
respectively) and to faculty accessibility (2.0 and 2.3, re-
spectively). They also reported significantly greater net-
working opportunities at the university (3.9) than did de-
clined students (3.0). Several positive features of the
academic environment are revealed in the following inter-
It seems like everybody thinks that if you are a Meyerhoff, then
you must be smart. I get that from teachers and people who just
work here. . . . They seem to admire you a lot . . . and have a
genuine sense of caring for your education.
In summary, the Meyerhoff Program appears to pro-
vide both high expectations and strong support for students.
In this regard, it represents in some ways a continuation of
the students’ precollege experience in their families, to
which we now turn.
Raising Academically Successful African
American Youth: Overcoming the Odds
An extensive body of research points to the many contex-
tual factors that decrease the likelihood that able African
American youth will achieve their academic potential.
These factors include perceived racism, negative peer in-
fluence, inadequate schools, concern about “acting White,”
isolation experienced in primarily White academic con-
texts, media influence, and single-parent households. The
problems are not limited to lower income Black youth; as
noted previously, African American youth born to middle-
class families are even more likely to lag behind their peers
on various indices of school success (Miller, 2000; Thern-
strom & Thernstrom, 2003).
We conducted two studies to identify the parenting
and contextual (neighborhood, peer, school, societal) fac-
tors related to the outstanding academic achievement of the
Meyerhoff students during their early years. We obtained
retrospective accounts of the students’ precollege years
from in-depth interviews of students and their parents. The
first study sample included 60 African American males and
their parents (Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif, 1998; Maton,
Hrabowski, & Greif, 1998). The second study sample in-
cluded 66 African American females and their parents
(Hrabowski, Maton, Greene, & Greif, 2002). Brief ques-
tionnaires supplemented the interviews in both studies.
The interview protocols focused on diverse areas of
family life. Mothers, fathers, and their sons or daughters
were asked identical or comparable questions. Questions
551September 2004 ● American Psychologist
from the interviews with the sons and daughters included
the following: What are the most important things your
parents have done in terms of helping you succeed aca-
demically? So many African American youth do not make
it academically—Why did you do so well? The interviews
lasted one to four hours. The thousands of pages of tran-
scribed interviews from the two studies were coded the-
Overview of findings.
complex tapestry of family processes and contexts involved
in each youth’s journey to outstanding academic achieve-
ment. Challenges, parenting practices, and pathways to
success, to some extent, were different for males and fe-
males and for children with different temperaments and
strengths and weaknesses. Different types of households—
single-parent noncollege educated, single-parent college
educated, two-parent noncollege educated, and two-parent
college-educated—differed somewhat as well.
Nonetheless, a number of common themes emerged.
Specifically, the combined importance of determined and
persistent parental academic engagement, strict discipline,
child-focused love, and community connectedness ap-
peared important to counteract potentially negative contex-
tual influences of neighborhood, peers, schools, and soci-
ety. We provide here a brief review of each of these
themes, with illustrative quotes included.
Determined and persistent academic en-
The parents appeared determined to help
their children succeed academically, against the odds. This
determination was manifest in very high expectations and a
persistent engagement in diverse facets of their child’s
education. This included an overarching emphasis on the
importance of education, a consistent focus on high levels
of performance, involvement in preschool educational ac-
tivities, engagement with teachers, advocacy for appropri-
ate academic placements, providing structure and help with
homework, and arranging placements in summer educa-
tional programs. Two quotes, the first from a son and the
second from a daughter, illustrate several of these themes:
The findings revealed a
[My mother] always told me that I was smart and that I would do
something [and] be someone. . . . When you tell a person that over
and over and over again, then eventually they start to believe it.
I come from a single-parent home. My sister and I were the only
two in my family. . . . My mom had always pushed us. . . . She
was very involved in our school; she knew what was going
on. . . . My mom never allowed me to fall short.
Strict limit setting and discipline.
cipline emerged as a second consistent theme. The sons and
daughters emphasized that their parents instilled in them a
well-defined sense of right and wrong. They believed that
this focus on values positively guided their development
and helped them to handle potential problems as they arose.
A number recalled their parents using physical punishment
to enforce rules during childhood. They also indicated an
awareness that the punishments received were not random
but had been directed at teaching them to do the right thing
in preparation for a sometimes racist and dangerous world
where mistakes, such as juvenile pranks, can have serious
consequences. The following two quotes, the first from a
son and the second from a daughter, illustrate some of these
My parents instilled at an early age the difference between right
and wrong. . . . My mother is 5 feet tall. I was 6 feet tall in middle
school. My mother was a teacher in the [city] school system for
25 years. She didn’t take anything from anybody. She would not
hesitate to stand up on a chair and yell at me. She did not play
games. If I did something wrong, I was in trouble.
I wasn’t the type of kid who got grounded—I was disciplined
hands on. My mom didn’t send me to my room. She didn’t let me
get away with stuff. . . . I was scared my mom would find out if
I did something, so I just didn’t do it. No behaviors to hide,
because I can’t hide.
Child-focused love, support, communica-
tion, and modeling.
Many of the sons and daughters
emphasized the high levels of love and support they re-
ceived from their parents—they were a primary focus of
their parents’ lives. Mothers in particular were viewed as
providing nurturance, comfort, guidance, and understand-
ing. Most who had a relationship with their father spoke
positively about that relationship. Parents were seen as
“being there when needed” and as having strong faith in
their son or daughter. Open lines of communication with
their parents were generally present, allowing discussion of
such difficult issues as sex, drugs, and crime. The love and
encouragement received appeared to foster a belief in self
and the power to achieve important personal goals, even in
the face of great challenges. The two quotes below, the first
one from a daughter and the second from a son, illustrate
several of these themes:
A lot had to do with my mother. . . . She was supportive and
encouraging. I could talk to [her] about anything. She trusted me,
and I recognized that. She just set the expectations, and I just did
it. My mom set a Christian example. Everything else falls in line
after that. I always had the utmost respect for her.
Society does not portray Black men as being intelligent or being
successful. My dad was an excellent role model of that successful
Community connectedness and resources.
Beyond the nuclear family, the influence of extended fam-
ily members, church, extracurricular activities, peers, and
teachers was emphasized by both parents and students. In
terms of extended family, grandmothers and aunts were
seen as especially influential and as contributing to aca-
demic focus. Church attendance was often a regular, shared
family activity, and for some, the church was a crucial
source of support. Parental support for extracurricular ac-
tivities, ranging from sports to dance to chess, was high-
lighted as critical. Positive peer influence was consistently
emphasized, especially at the secondary school level. Fi-
nally, a number of students described a particular teacher
who took a special interest in them and motivated them to
excel. Several of these themes are illustrated in the follow-
ing quotes, the first from a mother of a son and the second
from a daughter.
552 September 2004 ● American Psychologist
He got a lot of support. . . . Extended family . . . his grandparents
would come 600 miles for a program . . . his church, his minis-
ter. . . . The support was important because he was one of those
lost Black males. . . . If he had to depend on his school he would
have been lost by the wayside.
The kids around my neighborhood were real bad. I had to separate
myself from them after a while. After middle school, I only hung
out with my best friend, who lived right up the street. Just us two,
we never really hung out with the neighborhood kids, because
they were just going downhill.
The common themes above notwithstanding, the tap-
estries of the sons’ and daughters’ lives were quite diverse
in terms of the specific challenges faced (e.g., troubled
neighborhoods, isolation in schools, negative peer influ-
ence, perceived racism) and the strategies that helped them
meet these challenges. The qualitative methodology
adopted illuminated the rich and varied routes to outstand-
ing academic achievement in the face of many obstacles to
Our work over the past 15 years is based on a strengths
perspective. Our findings suggest the feasibility of trans-
forming the academic environment to increase the likeli-
hood that African American students will succeed in diffi-
cult STEM majors and enter STEM PhD programs.
Meyerhoff students were five times more likely to enter
STEM PhD programs than comparison students. Further-
more, our scholarship highlights the contributions of deter-
mined parental academic engagement, strict discipline,
child-focused love, and community connectedness to out-
standing achievement in the precollege years in the face of
difficult contextual challenges. We now examine the find-
ings, discuss limitations, and consider future directions.
Intervention in the University Environment
Our results to date suggest that a well-designed university-
based intervention can increase the numbers of African
American undergraduate students who proceed to STEM
PhDs. The program addresses key factors identified in the
research literature that limit the performance of capable
minority STEM students in predominantly White universi-
ties, including inadequate academic and social integration,
knowledge and skill development, support and motivation,
and advising and monitoring (Brown, 2000; Seymour &
Hewitt, 1997; Wilson, 2000). Our process evaluation data
suggest that the program overcomes these barriers by pro-
viding a powerful program community, financial support,
program staff who provide continuous advising and mon-
itoring, summer research internships with leading research-
ers, and, perhaps most unique, a positive campus academic
environment. These components are consistent with state-
of-the-art practice in the field (BEST, 2004; May & Chu-
In our view, it is the combined influence of these
components that contributes to the positive outcomes ob-
served. Such outcomes might not be possible if only a
handful of program components were present (BEST,
2004). This hypothesis needs to be tested in future research.
Involvement of research faculty is especially critical, be-
cause it takes researchers to produce fellow researchers. In
addition, the sustained, high-level administrative support
the Meyerhoff Program enjoys appears central to its suc-
cess. Lacking high-level university commitment, imple-
mentation of program components may be lackluster, sus-
tainability lacking, and program impact limited.
The discussion above assumes that the Meyerhoff
Program accounts for the students’ success at UMBC.
There are, however, alternative explanations. One is that
talented students like those in the Meyerhoff Program
would have succeeded without the program. This explana-
tion is belied by the lower rates of STEM PhD program
entrance for the comparison samples, however. A second
possibility is that the comparison students were less inter-
ested in pursuing the PhD from the start, and this is why
they declined the Meyerhoff Program offer. A third is that
the Meyerhoff students succeeded not because of the pro-
gram but because they were more academically qualified
than other STEM students on the UMBC campus (El-
liott, Strenta, Adair, Matier, & Scott, 1995). These ex-
planations appear unlikely to fully explain the findings
(cf. Maton et al., 2000) but are worthy of future empir-
Several potential downsides to the program exist. For
example, the constant programmatic pressure to succeed
and the focus on pursuing the PhD may negatively affect
some students. Furthermore, the program, by providing
special resources and status to a subgroup of African Amer-
ican students, has the potential to lead to resentment or
backlash on the part of equally capable STEM students not
involved in the Meyerhoff Program and students and fac-
ulty in non-STEM disciplines. Finally, the program can be
criticized for making the PhD and research careers a pri-
ority over the MD and nonresearch careers. Each of these
potential problems has surfaced to some extent in our
ongoing research and is worthy of careful attention. Over-
all, however, the distinct benefits of the program appear to
us to outweigh the limitations.
Our future research plans include examining key mod-
erating and mediating variables that influence program
outcomes, the impact on UMBC students, faculty, and staff
of the presence of a large number of high-achieving Afri-
can American students, program impact on non–African
American participants, and continued examination of out-
comes through receipt of the PhD and into the workforce,
with special focus on selection of research careers. Con-
cerning the latter, our hope is to learn which factors impede
and which ones contribute to success and to generate ways
in which the Meyerhoff Program can continue to support
students in graduate school. A parallel study of the expe-
riences, challenges, and supports for students in PhD pro-
grams in psychology is about to begin. Finally, we are
currently evaluating the UMBC Graduate Meyerhoff Fel-
lows Program, a program initiated in 1996 that aims to
replicate key Meyerhoff Program components (e.g., finan-
cial support, program community) for UMBC minority
553 September 2004 ● American Psychologist
Raising Academically Successful African
The Meyerhoff Program builds on the academic and per-
sonal strengths of the students. Our research suggests that
these strengths stem in part from being raised in families
characterized by extremely high levels of determined pa-
rental academic engagement, strictness, child-focused love,
and community connectedness. Taken together, the parent-
ing practices appear to counteract potentially negative con-
textual influences. Aspects of the findings are consistent
with various strands of prior research (Ga ´ndara, 1995).
These include the importance of educational socialization,
high expectations, parental involvement, and parenting
style for the achievement of youth in general (e.g., Chris-
tenson, Rounds, & Gorney, 1992) and assertive school
involvement, stringent supervision, parental support, peer
academic support, and linkage to community resources for
African American achievement in particular (e.g., Connell,
Spencer, & Aber, 1994; Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown,
1992). The current research suggests as well that only
extremely determined parenting efforts may be sufficient to
counteract fully the neighborhood, peer, and societal chal-
lenges of growing up Black in America.
Although the findings suggest a critical parental influ-
ence, an alternative explanation is that personal character-
istics of the sample, not parenting practices per se, account
for the outcomes. For instance, the sample contains a high
proportion of college-educated parents. Educated Black
parents may have highly successful children primarily be-
cause they live in more affluent neighborhoods and send
their children to better schools than other Black parents.
However, as mentioned earlier, the achievement gap be-
tween middle-class Blacks and Whites is at least as great as
for lower income populations. Or, above-average levels of
intellectual capability may account for the academic suc-
cess achieved, and the parenting practices described fol-
lowed from rather than led to this capability. Although
these and related possibilities cannot be ruled out, it is
unlikely that they fully account for the findings (Maton et
al., 1998). Nonetheless, given the retrospective research
design and the absence of comparison samples, the current
findings are only suggestive. Future research is necessary
to examine the complex interplay among the various con-
tributors to high levels of academic success among Black
The psychological mechanisms involved in these
youths’ pathways to success represent another important
focus for future investigation. Although not the focus of
our research per se, different students spontaneously indi-
cated a variety of psychological factors that appeared crit-
ical: belief in self, perseverance, spirituality, larger pur-
pose, self-discipline, concern for parent’s approval, future
orientation, ethnic identity, isolation from deviant peers,
and connectedness to a larger, purposeful community.
These are variables that may make the difference in main-
taining a sharp academic focus when many varied threats to
such a focus are present.
Our two books that present detailed findings from the
two studies have reached a relatively large audience; over
22,000 copies have been sold to date (see Hrabowski et al.,
1998, 2002). Furthermore, one of us (Freeman A.
Hrabowski, an African American president of a predomi-
nantly White university) has had the opportunity to present
the findings to large audiences of influential educators
around the country on numerous occasions, including at
research universities and colleges and at national, state-
wide, and local meetings of school boards, superintendents,
and teachers. He has also repeatedly presented these ideas
to groups of Black parents. On the basis of the questions
asked at these presentations and the large number of signed
book copies purchased following them, educators and
Black parents around the country appear intensely inter-
ested in new insights and strategies to help African Amer-
ican youth perform at higher levels and to hear that success
can be achieved.
The Relevance of STEM PhDs to the Brown v.
Board Supreme Court Decision
One result of the Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
decision has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of
African American college students enrolled in predomi-
nantly White institutions; the Meyerhoff students represent
a small portion of the over 80% of Black students who now
attend such institutions (American Council on Education,
2002). A critical challenge is to ensure that these students
succeed. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois, in his classic book, The
Souls of Black Folks, argued that the fate of Blacks in
America rests in part on the development of a highly
educated, influential Black leadership. This still appears to
be the reality today, 100 years later.
We view the future scientists of the United States as
one component of the Black leadership to which DuBois
referred. They will become the future professors, research-
ers, mentors, administrators, and respected community
leaders. Through role modeling, teaching, research, and
influencing policy, they can directly contribute to the well-
being of African Americans in the United States and to the
vitality of society more generally. Furthermore, given the
increasing diversity of the American population and the
challenges related to international student recruitment in
the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the health and vitality
of the science and technology workforce will depend in-
creasingly on finding ways to increase the number of mi-
nority scientists, including African American scientists
Some might argue, however, that in light of the crip-
pling poverty facing many Black families and the under-
performance of African American students in the public
schools, increasing the number of African American sci-
entists is a relatively minor and unimportant goal. Relat-
edly, targeting scarce resources to support high-achieving
African Americans, rather than increasing the pool of po-
tential scientists by enhancing public education more gen-
erally, may be viewed as an “elitist” strategy. We under-
stand the point of view reflected in these arguments.
However, we believe that it is vitally important for policy,
554 September 2004 ● American Psychologist
scholarship, and program development to focus on all
facets of the educational pipeline, given the substantial
ethnic discrepancies that exist at every juncture. It is not an
either/or situation (BEST, 2004; National Task Force on
Minority High Achievement, 1999).
Furthermore, the approaches used at UMBC to en-
hance the success of the Meyerhoff students and the ap-
proaches used by their parents to raise them may have
direct applicability to efforts focused on the general Afri-
can American population. That is, the Meyerhoff Program
approach may prove effective for students of varying levels
of ability, in various disciplines, and at various levels of
education. Similarly, the parenting practices of the parents
of Meyerhoff students may be academically advantageous
across the spectrum of youth ability. These possibilities
appear worthy of empirical examination, and to the extent
they bear fruit, they may represent an important benefit of
our focus on a select population of African American
Most important, the strengths-based philosophy that
underlies our work needs more prominence in the educa-
tional arena. If the emphasis of many scholars on the
deficits of Black youths and their families is to be coun-
teracted, it is critical to focus on their respective strengths
and to understand how these strengths are developed and
nurtured. Similarly, to counterbalance the focus of much
educational programming on “fixing” Black students, ad-
ditional emphasis needs to be placed on programs that build
on Black students’ capabilities. Finally, to broaden psy-
chology’s focus on understanding and changing individu-
als, additional attention needs to be paid to understanding
and strengthening the environments in which African
American youth are embedded. By adopting a strengths-
based approach to scholarship, program development, and
social policy, researchers, program developers, and policy-
makers together can help fulfill the 50-year-old promise of
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