The Grass Is Not Greener at PWIs: A Medical Diagnosis


Walter M. Kimbrough

Recently, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) released a report entitled “Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine.” Despite the report’s somewhat controversial findings, the association had the courage to share that, since 1978, the number of Black men applying to and enrolling in medical school has declined. While the decrease has been small—1,410 applied in 1978 compared to 1,337 in 2014—it is remarkable that fewer Black men are applying for medical school than almost forty years ago. The same trend held true for Black men enrolling in medical school: 542 enrolled in 1978, decreasing to 515 in 2014.

Most people probably aren’t alarmed by this statistic. But for me, all kinds of warning signals went off. During this time there has been a huge increase in the number of Black college students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1980, there were 1.1 million undergraduate Black college students, but by 2013, there were over 2.9 million—almost three times as many. Given the great growth in Black enrollment in higher education at large, the fact that medical school enrollment for Black men has actually declined seems that much more alarming.

Perhaps the trend could be due to a more general lack of medical school enrollment, I thought. However, AAMC data shows that the total number of applications to medical school from 1982 to 2013 has grown by 35%, and the number of medical school matriculants during that same time increased by 21%. Again, during a time of great Black undergraduate enrollment growth (164%) and significant medical school enrollment growth (21%), Black male enrollment in medical school actually decreased by 5%.

How can we account for this discrepancy? I thought about it and came up with this theory: The course was altered when Blacks en masse began abandoning historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

In 1980, 191,000 Black students attended HBCUs—17% of all Black undergraduates that year. By 2013 the number of Black HBCU students had grown to 209,000, but this figure accounted for only about 7% of Black undergraduates overall. This means HBCUs are educating a smaller percentage of the nation’s Black students than in the past. Could this be why fewer Black students are pursuing medical school? Do HBCUs prepare their Black students to face the adversity of medical school better than their non-HBCU counterparts?

This theory contradicts conventional Black wisdom: Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) have been historically considered to provide superior educational experiences, including better professors, newer facilities, larger endowments for providing scholarship support, etc. In short, Black communities since the late 1960s have believed that the grass is greener and the ice is colder at PWIs.

If it were true that Black students are getting a better education at PWIs—institutions that can use greater financial resources to attract the top Black students to meet their diversity goals—there would be more Black students enrolled in medical school due to better preparation. Almost forty years of Black students receiving this “better education” would translate into better MCAT scores, which would increase the number of Black students in medical school.

And yet, for Black men in medical school, the opposite has occurred.

This is not simply a one-profession anomaly. A 2009 study by a Columbia University law professor found that between 1993 and 2008, law school spots increased by 3,000, yet the total number of Black law students actually decreased. With more Black students attending “better” institutions in PWIs, we would expect to see an increase in their medical and law school enrollments—and yet the opposite is true.

I am a graduate of three PWIs, and I have always said that for some Black students they can be a great fit. The problem is that they are not a great fit for all of the Black students that attend them, which today is more than 9 out of 10 Black college students. A large number of Black students are getting lost in the greener grass and colder ice of PWIs. The decrease in medical and law school matriculation of Black students are two indicators that prove increased access to PWIs does not guarantee better educational outcomes for Black students.

In February, a new book by Lawrence Ross will be released called Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses. I had a chance to preview it recently and it helps explain this situation. Although Black students in greater numbers find themselves on “better” campuses, they have no answer to the suffocating racism that not only eliminates any perceived benefit from being there but may actually harm their educational outcomes. Look no further than this new study about Black men in medical school, as well as similar data for law schools, as proof.

By abandoning HBCUs, Black students and families have indeed altered the course, but at least in medicine (and law), this new course has been detrimental. With recent studies about decreases in Black family incomes and wealth over the past 40 years, maybe it is time to give HBCUs a new look. While students should always choose the college that is the best fit for them, these indicators suggest that leaving HBCUs for so-called greener grass has actually led many down a path of frustration and failure.

Walter M. Kimbrough is President of Dillard University and an Advisory Board member of Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.